"The Oval Portrait" is a short story by the American horror writer Edgar Allan Poe. It first appeared in print, under the title "Life in Death', in Graham's Magazine of Philadelphia in 1842. It was published again, as "The Oval Portrait", in the April 26, 1845 issue of the New York City newspaper The Broadway Journal. Two paragraphs were removed from the story before its publication in The Broadway Journal. "The Oval Portrait" is the shortest of all of Poe's published stories.
The story concerns a man who spends the night in an abandoned chateau which he has not visited before. For reasons which he cannot fully explain, he becomes fascinated by a portrait of a young woman that he sees there.
The story's unnamed narrator has been wounded. So as not to leave his injured master outside, the narrator's valet Pedro breaks into a chateau. The chateau appears to have been recently abandoned. The narrator and Pedro settle down for the night in a small apartment in a remote turret of the chateau. The room is decorated with antique tapestries and shields as well as with more modern paintings. It is those paintings which chiefly fascinate the narrator. On his bed, the narrator finds a small book which describes all of the paintings in the room.
Pedro falls asleep. The narrator moves the candle next to his bed so that he can see his book better. The candle then casts light on a portrait in a corner of the room which the narrator had not noticed before. The picture is in an oval frame. It depicts the head and shoulders of a young woman. The narrator acknowledges that the painting is very well executed and that its subject is beautiful. He feels, however, that there is something else about the portrait that fascinates him. He looks at it for an hour. He is startled at first by how lifelike the painting is. He eventually finds that fact appalling. He moves his candle again so that he cannot see the picture. He reads about the portrait in his book.
The narrator reads that the subject of the portrait was the artist's wife. Art was her only rival for her husband's affections and he appeared to care more for art than for her. For that reason, she came to resent art. She agreed, however, to pose for the portrait. The portrait was painted in a room in a high turret that was lit only from above. It took many weeks to complete the portrait and the artist often spent many hours at a time working on it. While he was painting, the artist spent more time looking at the canvas than at his wife. He did not notice that she was growing weaker, as if the life were going out of her and into the painting. When the portrait was completed, the artist was amazed by the quality of his own work and exclaimed, "This is indeed Life itself!" He then looked at his wife and saw that she was dead.
- Sound file of public domain audiobook of "The Oval Portrait" from LibriVox
- The Picture of Dorian Gray
- In the two paragraphs which were removed from the story before its publication in The Broadway Journal, the narrator describes how he got injured and says that he took opium to ease the pain. Poe may have decided to remove the reference to opium in order to avoid the suggestion that the events of the story were just a hallucination.