How long could you maintain your most withering glare? A minute? An hour?
Try 157 years. That’s how long the bride at the center of a painting by Auguste Toulmouche has been glowering at those who dare to regard her. Lately, her gaze — chin down and eyebrows low, framing a direct, piercing stare — has landed on a new generation of viewers.
The painting, “The Hesitant Fiancée” (1866), has become a surprise hit on TikTok, where contemporary viewers, many of them women, are using it to express their own moments of outrage or vindication.
Jenn Ficarra, 32, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, said the painting started popping up on her For You page last week. She was not familiar with Toulmouche, but instantly related to the look of a woman who was fed up. So she made her own video. “Don’t be mean,” she writes over an image of the painting, imagining a sexist scolding. Then she zooms in on the bride’s face for her retort: “Mean wasn’t even in the room with us but I can go get him and bring him in.”
Many other TikTok users became acquainted with the painting last week, when a similar video with the text “literally me when I’m right” was posted, set to a dramatic section of Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem. It has since been viewed more than six million times. Others on the app have used the painting as a punchline in response to phrases like “You’re overreacting” and “You really should smile more.”
The trend is a curious addendum to Toulmouche’s career. Born in Nantes, France, in 1829, he was known for painting idealized portraits of wealthy Parisian women at a time when his contemporaries, such as Claude Monet and Edgar Degas, were spinning off into the looser, less rigid school of Impressionism. Toulmouche’s style, which is called academic realism, eventually lost out to that of the better-remembered cohort of Impressionists.
“The Hesitant Fiancée,” which was not among the best-known paintings in its time period, depicts four women in the opulent clothing and surroundings typical of Toulmouche’s subjects. But the bride’s dour expression is unusual, said Therese Dolan, a professor emerita of modern and contemporary art at the Tyler School of Art and Architecture at Temple University in Philadelphia.
“You don’t often get this in 19th-century painting — this kind of independent streak,” Dr. Dolan said. “She’s actually showing the emotion of not wanting to get married to the person that her obviously wealthy family has picked out.”
Her apparent anger is especially fitting given that women in Parisian society lost many of their rights upon marriage, she said, adding, “What Toulmouche does so successfully is get into the psyche of the woman.”
Today’s viewers have come up with wide-ranging interpretations of the painting and its applications to modern life.
Ms. Ficarra, the screenwriter, thinks the painting has taken off online because so many women respond to the frustration on the bride’s face in a situation in which she is expected to appear grateful. The painting shows that women have been bristling at such societal expectations for centuries, she said, and dealing with them by confiding in other women: “It honestly just feels like a scene from a Friday night with your friends.”
Joan Hawk, an owner of Bedford Fine Art gallery in Bedford, Pa., which has sold some of Toulmouche’s work, wondered whether the painting’s resurgence had to do with young women’s changing attitudes toward marriage. The light in the painting highlights the bride’s face, which, Ms. Hawk said, communicates something along the lines of: “Ugh, do I really have to go through with this?”
On queer corners of TikTok, some are reading even more deeply into the bride’s reluctance. The bride is attended to by three other women, one of whom holds her hand while another kisses her forehead.
“That painting is gay as hell,” said Nina Haines, 26, who lives in Brooklyn and runs a book club called Sapph-Lit.
She pointed to the “delicate touch” between the women in the painting, and the intimacy they display in a moment when one of them is clearly upset. Lesbian relationships have often been disguised or dismissed as friendships, she added.
While fresh debates over the painting are playing out among young people who are new to 19th-century French art, Toulmouche, who died in 1890, will never be able to appreciate his newfound fan base.
“R.I.P. to a real one,” Ms. Haines said.