“Art is a jealous mistress.” Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote easily summarizes “The Oval Portrait,” written by Edgar Allen Poe. It is a chilling tale, describing the two different passions of a married couple. The husband, a painter, requests that the wife let him paint her portrait, and in obeying him, she meets her doom. As the painting matured, her health and spirits declined and yet she remained and, without objection, she continued to sit for him. His passions increase and after many weeks, as the painting nears completion, each stroke of the brush strips her of her beauty, and finally, upon the conclusion of the painting, it robs her of her life. This is a bewitching story of passion, murder, vampirism, and murder.
Poe’s story is an uncanny analysis of two passions: art and romance. It is a given that the artist loves his wife, but he seems to share a much deeper bond with his art. It is unfortunate for the wife to have fallen in love with a painter who was “passionate, studious, austere and having already a bride in his art.” As she was young and happy, she seemed to have a love of all things, and yet she came to loathe his art and to despise his brushes and the other tools of his passion. All the way through the story, it is made very clear that art is not simply his occupation, but it becomes an actual woman who rivals with the wife for the painter’s affection. As the wife withers away, the portrait comes to life, thus the painter achieves any artist’s ultimate fantasy: the preservation of his true love and passion (whether it be the wife or the painting) against the total destruction of time.
It is well known that the women in Poe’s time were banned from the public sphere and stripped of power and identity. Taking this into consideration, it is safe to say that the artist may have wanted her to die. Though the story never indicates it, the wife could have been very outspoken, and because of this, it is likely that the painter could be tremendously ashamed of her. The painter, knowing that she would do anything for him, could have asked her to be the model of his portrait. Then, he would be likely to take as long as he needed to paint this portrait of her. His only cover-up for her death would be that she loved him enough to sit that long, and he loved art enough to get that carried away with it.
“Art itself is involved in the transfer of vitality; the process of creation is vampiric.” In Poe’s tale, it is evident that as the painting comes to life, the wife gets closer to death. The way that the inanimate portrait gains life from the living is comparable to vampirism. The vampire myth itself is an ideal paradigm for love that is too demanding, or art that is too life consuming. The artist in this story, who can be depicted as a vampire, seems to have to kill in order to renew life. Throughout the entire life of the painting, the wife’s cheeks lose color and she grows weaker, so it would seem appropriate to say that he could be painting with her blood. The artist transfers the life essence of the wife into his painting of her; draining her with each sitting until she dies at the moment he completes his work. Poe investigates the nature of human relationships, including love and lust and develops his theme to observe the vampiric qualities inherent in the creative or artistic process. Therefore, Poe manages to subtly demonstrate that a vampire’s life depends upon the death of another.
There is definitely a sense of mystery in this narrative. From what an audience can gather, no one else was in the room with the painter and his wife. Whoever wrote the history of the painting could not have known what happened to the wife, unless the painter himself wrote it. Anything could have occurred in that room. From what the reader can tell, it is a good possibility that the painter strangled his wife himself and painted her dead body. It is nearly impossible to tell what exactly happened. Poe also left the audience hanging at the end of the story.
Nowhere in the final paragraph does Poe state or even infer that the painter had come to blame himself for his wife’s death. In fact, the tale ends precisely where the reader’s questions should have been answered and the conflict resolved. Some may like to believe that the painter was at least capable of grieving for his bride, but it is hopeless to even assume that there is a real answer. It is basically left up to the reader to make up his or her own mind about what happened afterwards.
To put it briefly, “The Oval Portrait” is a very mysterious, dark, and creepy story. The life that the young painter takes from his wife illuminates the painting. But in the end, she bears the tragic consequences of her husband’s love for his art and her own love for him. Through this story it becomes obvious that love triangles are dangerous to life, as are vampires and society itself. This story is a prime example of the hazards of loving someone that already loves another.