This painting represents the tragic lovers from Dante's Inferno. It is the moment when Francesca de Rimini is interrupted by a kiss from her lover, Paolo, while her jealous husband looks on.
It is a subject which Scheffer painted obsessively for over thirty-three years, and remains his most famous image and an icon of nineteenth century painting. Whilst a work entitled, Les Ombres de Françoise de Rimini et son amant appraissant au Dante et Virgile first appears listed under his name in the Salon livrets as early as 1822 and 1824, this subject by him was exhibited in the Salon of 1835, described in the livret as belonging to the Duc d'Orleans (now in the Wallace Collection). The painting received high acclaim and Scheffer was awarded the Legion d'Honeur at this time. The huge success of this picture encouraged him to paint a number of versions during the 1850s, which were varied in size and subtle changes. The present work is dated 1852.
The fame and popularity of this image were spread through numerous engravings, reaching a wide audience. In 1854 George Eliot, upon seeing Paolo and Francesca at Gambart's Gallery in London, wrote:
"It surpasses one's expectations from the engraving. I could look at it for hours. There is nothing at the Royal Academy to affect one in the same way - or indeed at all."