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.
Rossetti depicts Paolo and Francesca secretly embracing, with a large illuminated book open on their knees and a plucked red rose at their feet. The figure in the book, dressed, like Paolo, in red and blue, is Lancelot, who also suffered for his forbidden love.
The central section depicts Dante and Virgil, crowned with laurel, regarding with concern the two lovers on the right, who appear to float like wraiths in each others arms, amid the flames of hell. Their adulterous relationship uncovered, they were murdered by Francesca's husband and Paolo's brother, Sigismondo Malatesta, and banished to the second circle of hell. Rossetti brings the story to life by inscribing quotations from Dante's text around the edge of the composition.
The picture is executed in watercolour and in the archaic, medievalising style of this period in Rossetti's art. The drawing is simple and the colours generally muted. Only Francesca's long golden hair looks forward to the more sensuous creatures of Rossetti's later works. According to the artist Ford Madox Brown, Rossetti began the picture on an impulse, and, working day and night, completed the composition within a week. The picture was originally planned as a triptych in oil, with the same scenes as in the watercolour, but with the lovers kissing as the central motif. The subject was commissioned by Ellen Heaton but the writer and critic John Ruskin, who had requested five watercolours from Rossetti, bought it for 35 guineas and offered it, along with Rachel and Leah (untraced), to Miss Heaton. He described the picture to her in a letter as 'a most gloomy drawing - very grand - but dreadful - of Dante seeing the soul of Francesca and her lover!' (quoted in Virginia Surtees, The Paintings & Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, vol.1, Oxford 1971, p.37). Not surprisingly, Heaton was dissuaded from buying the picture, which Ruskin kept for himself.
Leslie Parris (ed.), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, p.278; reproduced p.278.
Virginia Surtees, The Paintings and Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, 2 vols., Oxford 1971, pp.36-7, no.75, reproduced pl.87.
Andrew Wilton & Robert Upstone (eds), 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.