- Tintoretto and “The Oval Portrait”
In his notes to “Life in Death (The Oval Portrait),” Mabbott cites as a possible source a legend that Tintoretto had painted a portrait of his daughter on her deathbed, although admitting that “the story appears in various accounts— see, for example, the Nouvelle Biographie générale (1866), but we have not yet found it in print where Poe could easily have seen it” (The Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe, 2:660).
Another potential source, coincidently also associated with Tintoretto, appears to have been previously unnoticed and may be worthy of mention. In “The Duke and Duchess of Medecis” (Athenaeum: Journal of English and Foreign Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts [London], no. 252, August 25, 1832, pp. 547–48), we are told an unsettling tale about love, death, and art. The story purports to be a translation from “L’Eglise des Petits Péres à Paris,” by Madlle. Elise Voiart. Her full name was Ann-Élisabeth-Élise Petit-Pain, dame Voïart (1786–1866). According to the article, the young Duke and Duchess, during the reign of Emperor Charles V, fell in love, married, and began their new life with a strange premonition of death. In a somewhat convoluted sequence of events, the Duchess suddenly fears that her husband has been stabbed, and in hastening to see him, collapses in what is presumably a fit of overwhelming emotion. The Duke is informed, and rushes to her side, only to find her unresponsive. In despair, he is also overcome by emotion and falls faint. Both shortly recover, but with a lingering “presentiment that they should not live long.” They decide to liquidate their financial assets and give the resulting money to the poor. They also decide on a plan to “teach a useful moral to the world” in the form of two sets of portraits, one painted showing each of them in their current youth and [End Page 233] vitality, and one painted six weeks after their deaths. Tintoretto was selected to carry out this bizarre commission, and he agreed. The story ends as follows:
Scarcely were the portraits finished, and the preliminary measures taken for the new life the Duke and Duchess intended to lead, than the health of the latter, already feeble, suddenly declined, and her husband feared that her sad anticipations would soon be realised. And in truth, whether it was the result of an organic disease, or the consequences of an excited and overwrought mind, the Duchess died almost suddenly. Some moments before her death, unable to speak, she fixed a long and tender look upon her husband, extended her trembling hand towards him, and her fingers, already chilled by the approach of death, seemed to make him a mysterious sign.
The Duke survived his wife only long enough to pay the last duties to her remains, and take measures for the execution of her dying wishes. He sent for the painter, and made him renew his promise, which Tintoretto religiously fulfilled.
The story was reprinted under the same title in the American edition of the magazine Athenaeum Journal of English Literature (Boston, vol. 4, no. 2, November 1832, pp. 141–43), and thus easily available to Poe prior to the composition of his own story in 1842. [End Page 234]
Jeffrey A. Savoye is Secretary–Treasurer and Webmaster of the Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore. He is the coeditor, along with Burton R. Pollin, of the revised edition of The Collected Letters of Edgar Allan Poe (2008). He has published numerous reviews and articles related to the life and writings of Edgar Allan Poe. He is Honorary Member of the Poe Studies Association and has received both the James Gargano and the Patrick Quinn Awards.