As one of the shortest of Poe’s stories, “The Oval Portrait” consists of a brief one-paragraph story framed within a larger vignette whose main purpose is to establish the romantic Gothic mood in which the story occurs. The setting and basis of the plot are shrouded in mystery; the narrator does not explain how or where he is wounded, and with his servant, he enters an abandoned, decaying chateau that offers no more answers than the narrator. The dark gloom of a deserted house is a classic background for a Gothic story, and the tapestries and strange architecture of the building give the narrator’s choice of apartment a feeling of removal from the contemporary world. Nothing of consequence occurs during the night, but the details provide a romantic feeling of loss that serves as an introduction to the story of the oval portrait. The oval portrait indicates the tension between the impermanence of life and the intransience of art.
The portrait’s subject is full of life when she marries the painter, but the as the guide book says, “The tints which he spread upon the canvas were drawn from the cheeks of her who sat beside him.” With his artistic powers, he has created a double of his wife, but as in “William Wilson,” both cannot simultaneously subsist for long without one defeating the other. The history of the painting suggests that although the metamorphosis from life to eternal art may create a masterful work of beauty that simulates life, the narrator is only deceived by his “dreamy stupor” and by the sudden reveal of the painting from the dark. A second, more intense look at the painting reveals the illusion, and similarly, the painter of the story ends by giving up his wife for a mere image. The destruction of loved ones is a common theme in many of Poe’s short stories, but unlike in Poe’s other stories, the painter does not cause his wife’s death because of hate or any negative emotions.
Instead, his passion for his art simply overwhelms him to the point where he can no longer see his wife except though the lens of his painting. Thus, the story associates art and creativity with decay, not only within the story of the painting but in the juxtaposition of “spirited modern paintings” with “rich, yet tattered and antique” decorations within the narrator’s room. In the stories of C. Auguste Dupin, Poe praises the power of creativity tempered by the ability to maintain emotional removal, but the passion of the painter in “The Oval Portrait” is unrestricted and hence ultimately harmful in his search to immortalize his wife’s image. The association of beautiful women with death is prevalent in Poe’s works, and is especially prominent in “The Oval Portrait.”
The painter’s wife is a beautiful woman even before she agrees to model for her husband’s portrait, but as she begins to fade away under the influence of the tower, she becomes pale and wan and as a result could easily fit the Romantic and Gothic ideal of the ethereal woman. Finally, as she dies, the process of transfer between life and art completes, and her portrait captures her “immortal beauty” before it can fade away in old age and memory. Art and aesthetics are intrinsically connected, and the relationship between art and death places the painter’s wife next to other Poe characters such as Ligeia from the eponymous story, who also become beautiful as they approach death.
Although “The Oval Portrait” centers on the painting of a woman, the painter’s wife is essentially a passive figure within the story. Docile and loving, she is akin to the canvas of the portrait in that both are manipulated by the male painter, whose passion and drive make him the active figure in the history of the painting. Furthermore, the wife is never the active, observing character. She is only observed, both by her husband, who in the throes of his art sees her only as a model, and by the narrator, who peers at her image in order to while away the night (we know that the narrator is male because his servant is described as a valet, a term commonly used for the male servant of a man). The wife’s fate acts as a criticism of the male domination of art, but her compliance and submissiveness prevent her from serving as more than a silent warning.