One of Edgar Allan Poe’s shortest short stories is “The Oval Portrait.” However, its brevity notwithstanding, it is a disturbing and horrific tale in which there is an undercurrent of what might be called psychic vampirism. For those who may be unacquainted with the story, a summary of it is in order:
In a tale so short and simple, a lesser artist than Poe might have had great difficulty in elevating the story to the level of art, but Poe, of course, is one of the great masters of the horror genre. Because of the subtlety with which he writes and because of his own knowledge of human nature, which was more than a little tinged with cynicism, he imparts to his tale an unexpected psychological richness. Much that the story conveys is left unsaid and must be inferred by those readers who are able, as it were, to read between the lines.
The story’s narrator, who is wounded, and his valet, Pedro, seek shelter within the apartment of an abandoned Gothic chateau situated “among the Appennines.” In the apartment, the narrator finds that the walls--and even the niches within the walls--are decorated with “a number of very spirited modern paintings” and, upon the pillow of the bed, he discovers a “small volume. . . which. . . criticize[s] and describe[s]” the paintings. For some reason--perhaps because of his “incipient delirium”--he takes a keen interest in the paintings.
After Pedro drops off to sleep, the narrator changes the position of the candelabrum so that its candlelight better illuminates the pages of his book, and, as a result, he discerns a painting in an alcove that had been previously lost in the room’s shadows. Bordered by an oval frame, the painting depicts the head and shoulders of “a young girl just ripening into womanhood.” Her “arms. . . bosom. . . and. . . hair” seem to dissolve into “the vague yet deep shadow” that represents the “background of the whole,” and the narrator, upon first glimpsing it, is startled, mistaking the picture for a disembodied head.
After returning the candelabrum to its original position, the narrator again consults his book, reading about the picture in the oval frame. According to this text, the young woman had been the wife of the “passionate, studious, austere” artist who, married to his art before he’d taken the young woman as his wife, painted her portrait. A happy person, she’d disliked only the art that kept her husband from her. When he’d asked to paint her portrait, however, she’d obediently sat for him, for days on end.
At last, the book declares, the artist finished his work, declaring it to be nothing less than “life itself!” and, turning to “regard his beloved,” he found that she was dead.
The wife is in the flower of womanhood, and has a carefree, loving, and happy heart. Her husband, however, seems to love his art--which is to say, himself, since his art is an expression of himself--more than he loves her. It is to her beauty that he is attracted more than to her, as a person. He views her as a fitting subject for his art, and asks her to model for him, despite her dislike of “the Art which was her rival” and her dread of “the pallet and the brushes. . . which deprived her of the countenance of her lover.” As he paints, spending all his time with the very “pallet and brushes” that she detests as her rivals for her husband’s affection, rather than with her (as other than a model), her health fails, and she becomes “daily more dispirited and weak.”
According to the book that “criticise[s] and describes[s] the paintings,” the color in the portrait’s cheek is obtained at the expense of her own lifeblood: “he would not see that the tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.” The last brushstroke with which his masterpiece is completed ends her life. Symbolically, his art represents his nature, which is as narcissistic as it is “passionate, studious,” and “austere.” Paradoxically, as an artist, he is a creator; at the same time, his creativity destroys the woman whom he claims to love. His passion for his work sucks the life from his bride. The artist is a psychic vampire who is willing to kill in order that his art may thrive. Artists are like Brahma and Shiva of the Hindu Trimurti, both a creator and a destroyer at once, and every work of art is a still life of sorts, a Vishnu, or preserver, created of the essence of the life (or lives) upon which the artist’s imagination has fed and, daily, continues to feed.
The theme of Poe’s story is reminiscent of that of a poem, “My Last Duchess,” by one of the author’s contemporaries, Robert Browning (1812-1889), although Poe’s story was written before Browning’s poem and there is no evidence that the two works have anything to do with one another:
That's my last duchess painted on the wall,It is more likely that these artists both understood the paradoxical creative-destructive duality of the artist. In Browning’s poem, a duke appreciates the portrait of his late wife more than he appreciated her (whom, the poem suggests, he may have killed), because it is both beautiful and passive. (The young wife in Poe’s story is also beautiful and obedient.) The women’s passivity or obedience allowed the artists to create beautiful portraits, although these qualities also allowed them to destroy the realities that these portraits represent. Therein, Poe suggests, lies the horror of art in general and of "The Oval Portrait" in particular.
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now; Fra Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.