The tragic story of the adulterous lovers, Paolo and Francesca, is recounted in Canto V of Dante's Inferno, and was a popular subject with artists and sculptors from the late 18th Century onwards. In 1854 G.F. Watts showed his moving first version of Paolo and Francesca (Trustees of the Watts Gallery) at the British Institution, and this may have suggested the theme to Rossetti.
The composition of this picture is divided into three parts, reading from left to right. The left-hand panel illustrates the following lines from Dante's text:
One dayFor our delight we read of Lancelot,
How him love thrall'd. Alone we were, and no
Suspicion near us … then he, who ne'er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kiss'd…