Monday, April 9, 2012

Short Story Review: The Oval Portrait by Edgar Allan Poe

book cover
Original Publication Date: 1842

Genre: horror

Topics: art, obsession, death


Another Librivox short story! First of all, I have to give a shout-out to the narrator of this short story, Ralph Snelson, who is the bossest narrator I've ever encountered in a Librivox audiobook. Keep up the good work, my man! The story is really good, too.

The Oval Portrait is one of Edgar Allan Poe's shortest stories, but it packs a punch. The narrator is recovering from injuries in Italy, and finds himself in a room filled with paintings. Suddenly he comes upon a portrait "in the style of Sully" that takes him aback with its "absolute life-likeliness". The rest of the story is an account of the creation of painting--basically, an artist painted his wife, but every brush stroke stole a bit of her life until the painting was complete and she was nothing but an empty shell.

fanny kemble by thomas sully
Thomas Sully, Portrait of Fanny Kemble, 1834

As someone who knows a bit about art, I found this kind of chilling. There are plenty of tales about artists falling in love with their work or their subjects, one of the most famous being the tale of Apelles and Campaspe. Campaspe was Alexander the Great’s courtesan and the most beautiful woman in Ancient Greece. Apelles, the ancient world's greatest painter, was commissioned to paint Campaspe's portrait by Alexander; but while painting her Apelles fell in love. He knew that the day he finished the painting, he and Campaspe would have to part, so he delayed as long as he could; but finally Alexander asked for her portrait. After taking one look at the portrait, however, Alexander knew Apelles loved Campaspe more than he ever could, so he offered the painter a trade: he’d take the portrait and in exchange, Apelles could have the living and breathing woman.

Renaissance artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael were obsessed with Apelles and strove to imitate him, despite the fact that none of his works of art survive. Because of the legend of Apelles and Campaspe, Leonardo said the "Modern Apelles" would be able to paint an image of a woman so realistic it would inspire desire in the viewer. This was the driving force behind many of the Renaissance's most famous works of art, including Botticelli's Venus and the Mona Lisa. Ever seen a Raphael portrait and noticed the eyes follow you no matter where you stand in the room? That's a little trick he developed to make his paintings of women seem as if they were alive.

madonna of the chair
Raphael, Madonna of the Chair, 1515, Pitti Palace, Florence

Considering the portrait that the narrator in The Oval Portrait sees is formatted like many of Raphael's Madonna paintings, and the story is set in Italy, I think Poe had to be deliberately drawing on this tradition. But Poe, being the morbid bastard he was, gives it a twist by making the artist steal the life of the woman he loves in order to create a beautiful work of art. Instead of the painting representing his love for the subject, as in the story of Apelles, it represents monomania and selfishness. Poe himself believed that the most beautiful poetry was that about the death of a woman--I bet he was AWESOME in relationships.

The Oval Portrait inspired many other works, including The Picture of Dorian Grey. This is a great short story and I highly recommend you check it out!

Find The Oval Portrait at Classic Lit