Exhibition catalogue text

Catalogue entry from The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910


30 Paolo and Francesca da Rimini 1855

Watercolour 25.4 x 44.9 (10 x 17 3/4)
Inscribed 'Quanti dolci pensier Quanto disio' at the lower edge of the left compartment; 'Men? costoro al doloroso passo' at the lower edge of the right compartment; and 'O lasso!' in the upper part of the central compartment
Prov: John Ruskin; William Morris; George Rae; bt by the Tate Gallery 1916
Exh: Burlington Fine Arts Club 1883 (13); Birmingham 1947 (101); Whitechapel 1948 (66); Leicester 1968 (36); Newcastle-upon-Tyne 1971 (50); Paris 1972 (228); Rotterdam 1975 (200); RA 1979 (217); Tate Gallery 1984 (215); Munich and Madrid 1993 (61)
Lit: Sharp 1882, pp.181-2; Marillier 1899, no.41, pp.53, 66, 81; Surtees 1971, I, no.75, pp.36-7

Tate Gallery. Purchased with assistance from Sir Arthur Du Cros Bt and Sir Otto Beit KCMG through the National Art Collections Fund 1916

The story of Paolo and Francesca comes from canto v of Dante's Inferno. Of the three parts of Rossetti's composition, that on the left represents Francesca and her brother-in-law Paolo embracing. The centre shows Dante and Virgil wearing crowns of laurel and bay and looking with concern at the right-hand compartment, in which the lovers drift in each other's arms through the fires of hell following their murder by Sigismondo Malatesta, Francesca's husband and Paolo's brother. Quotations from the original text are inscribed around the edge of the composition.

The arrangement, analogous to a strip cartoon, allowed Rossetti to treat the subject with stark simplicity, each part complete in itself, but symbolically linked across the width of the composition. As early as 1849 W.M. Rossetti described how his brother had planned to combine scenes showing the lovers kissing and their 'spirits blowing to and fro' (Rossetti 1900, p.232) The previous year G.F. Watts had shown the first version of his Paolo and Francesca (see no.48) at the British Institution, and this may have prompted Rossetti's interest in the subject.

Gabriel Rossetti had five watercolours of biblical and literary subjects in hand in the autumn of 1855, mostly embarked upon at the behest of John Ruskin. Paolo and Francesca, however, was done on an impulse, because Rossetti found himself in need of ready money to send to Lizzie and a companion, who were stranded in Paris. Ford Madox Brown described the circumstances: 'Gabriel, who saw that none of the drawings on the easel could be completed before long, began a fresh one, Francesca da Rimini, in three compartments; worked day and night, finished it in a week, got 35 guineas for it from Ruskin, and started off to relieve them ... This is how Gabriel can work on a pinch' (Rossetti 1899, pp.46-7). Ruskin allowed Ellen Heaton of Leeds, who had previously asked Rossetti for a watercolour, to choose between it and Rachel and Leah (Tate Gallery [N05228]), another Dante subject completed at about the same time. Ruskin described no.30 as 'a most gloomy drawing - very grand - but dreadful - of Dante seeing the soul of Francesca and her lover!' In a second letter to Miss Heaton he expressed concern that she might be shocked by the direct way in which the drawing told its story: 'The common-pretty-timid-mistletoe bough kind of kiss was not what Dante meant. Rossetti has thoroughly understood the passage throughout' (quoted in Surtees 1971, I, p.37). In the event Ellen Heaton chose to buy Rachel and Leah, which allowed Ruskin to keep Paolo and Francesca for himself.

Christopher Newall

Published in:
Andrew Wilton, Robert Upstone, and others, The Age of Rossetti, Burne-Jones & Watts: Symbolism in Britain 1860-1910, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1997, pp.134-5 no.30, reproduced in colour p.134