During the mid-1930s, Joseph Cornell began center his focus to the construction of shadow boxes that would recall nineteenth-century toy theaters or children's pop-up books. One small series of four boxes executed in the early 1940s in particular draws reference directly from the artist's own childhood. Like other artists such as Jean-Auguste Dominique Ingres, Dante Gabriele Rossetti and Auguste Rodin before him, Cornell, too, was struck by the tragic tale of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini in his series, Paolo and Francesca. A contemporary of Dante, Francesca da Rimini fell in love with her husband's brother, Paolo Malatesta. Discovered together by her husband, Gianciotto, the lovers were murdered by the cuckolded husband. Originally recounted in the fifth canto of The Divine Comedy, Dante relegated the couple to the second circle of hell, which was reserved for the lustful. There, the couple was trapped in an eternal whirlwind, condemned to be swept through the air just as they had allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions.
Discovering composition similarities between the Victorian steel engraving of the lovers seated side by side in a garden reading the story of the doomed love between Lancelot and Guinevere and a photograph of Cornell's own parents, art historian Sandra Leonard Starr has surmised:
"Looking at the photograph of Cornell's parents, Helen and Joseph, circa 1914, seated in profile in the parlor of their gothic revival house in Nyack, it seems likely that this memento from Cornell's archives was the model for his Paolo and Francesca series. The photograph was made three years prior to the death of Joseph Cornell, Sr. In the 1916-1917 season, Zadonai's opera Paolo and Francesca, based on Gabriel D'Annuzio's novel, was preformed several times at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Cornell's parents were both opera fans, and perhaps Cornell is paying homage to the last moments of the idyll of his family life prior to 1917. After his father's death, Cornell, at the age of fourteen, was sent away from home for the first time, to Phillips Academy, Andover, for four years, apparently not an altogether happy experience, and the family was forced to give up the big house in Nyack and move into a series of rented residences during the following decade. It appears that the series both commemorates his parents' love for each other (Cornell's mother never remarried) and establishes his own metaphysical belief that death is not the cessation of life but simply 'a going through the door.' It is death, which has been removed to a dream dimension in this box, a dream which has no reality. In this box, Cornell has placed Paolo and Francesca and his parents in a location where 'The astronomer will no longer look up to the stars-he will look out from them upon the universe'" (S. L. Starr, Joseph Cornell: Art and Metaphysics, exh. cat., Castelli, Feigen, Corcoran Gallery, 1982, pp. 31-32). Plagued by his own self-doubt in his early career, Cornell's arrival to his mature handcrafted box constructions happened only a few years prior to his creation of Paolo and Francesca.