Hallé was born in Paris, the son of (Sir) Charles Hallé, the pianist and conductor, coming to England with his parents at the time of the revolution of 1848. His earliest teachers were Richard Doyle (a lifelong friend) and Baron Marochetti. He then entered the Royal Academy schools, and at the age of sixteen spent a year in Paris, studying under Ingres' pupil Victor Mottez and meeting the master himself, to whom he showed his drawings. When his health broke down he went on to travel in Italy, where he seems to have been particularly alive to the neo-classical and Nazarene tradition in Rome, noting that Ingres, Cornelius and Overbeck were still revered and that the English sculptor John Gibson remained a 'potent influence'. Back in London, he showed four pictures at the Royal Academy of 1866, and then returned to Italy. This time he spent a year in Venice, a city, he wrote, which 'captivated me at once, and laid a spell on me that I have never shaken off'. Like so many before him, he spent much time trying to learn the technique of the Venetian masters. 'I made a very careful study of their methods, and several copies, and am convinced that they proceeded almost entirely by glazing ... That I might test my theories in practice, I painted an altarpiece of a Madonna and Child with St George and St Wilfrid; but the Venetian method is not learnt in a day, and requires long practice.' Back once again in London, he established himself as a portrait painter while also attempting imaginative and literary themes. His style clearly betrays his early academic training and his fondness for the Venetians, a combination which sometimes gives his work an affinity with that of a younger artist who was open to similar influences, Frank Dicksee. Meanwhile Hallé had met Rossetti and Burne-Jones, and in 1877 he and Joseph Comyns Carr assisted Sir Coutts Lindsay in the founding of the Grosvenor Gallery to show the work of the more advanced artists of the day. It immediately became the flagship of the Aesthetic Movement and a focus of violent controversy, gaining the artists passionate admirers but also inspiring ridicule, summed up in the famous phrase 'greenery yallery, Grosvenor Gallery' from Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience (1881). When disputes arose over the running of the Grosvenor, Hallé and Carr withdrew and, with the support of Burne-Jones and other luminaries, opened the New Gallery in Regent Street in 1888. Hallé continued to paint, exhibiting regularly at both the Grosvenor and New Galleries, but he is remembered chiefly for the key part he played in these ventures, with their commitment to innovative art, their ambitious and wide-ranging winter exhibitions, and, above all, their revolutionary approach to display. In 1909 he published his reminiscences, Notes from a Painter's Life, a valuable if somewhat cantankerous source-book from which the above quotations are taken.
Paolo and Francesca illustrates the well-known story of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, the brother and sister-in-law, both married, who fell in love and were murdered by Francesca's outraged husband c.1285. Dante encounters them in the second circle of hell, where carnal sinners are punished, and Francesca describes to him how the love between herself and Paolo had been inspired by reading a romance about Sir Lancelot. This is the incident painted by Hallé, who quoted the relevant passage from Francesca's speech (Inferno, Canto V, Cary's translation) when the picture was exhibited at the New Gallery in 1888:
But at one point
Alone we fell. When of that smile we read,
The wished smile, so rapturously kiss'd
By one so deep in love, then he, who ne'er
From me shall separate, at once my lips
All trembling kiss'd. The book and writer both
Were love's purveyors. In its leaves that day
We read no more.
The date and place of the picture's exhibition are significant, for Hallé must have been particularly anxious to make a good impression on this occasion, the opening exhibition of the breakaway gallery on which he had staked so much. Indeed he listed Paolo and Francesca among his 'principal works' in his entry in Who's Who. F.G. Stephens also admired the picture, writing in the Athenaeum: 'It is not only his best work, but far more complete and striking as a design, better put together, more expressive and homogeneous in colour, and more thoroughly drawn than anything we know from his hands. The attitudes are apt and spirited, [although] we care less for Paolo's expression than that of Francesca.'
Stylistically, the picture exemplifies the fusion of academic drawing and Venetian colour already noted as characteristic of Hallé's work, while iconographically it belongs to a long tradition, the subject of the lovers, whether embracing on earth or floating in hell, having enjoyed great popularity in the wake of the Romantic Movement. It occurs among Flaxman's illustrations to Dante published in 1807, and those who attempted it subsequently included Ingres (from 1819, the year that Keats treated it in a sonnet), Blake (1824-7), J.A. Koch (1825-8), Delacroix (1826), Ary Scheffer (1835), C.W. Cope (1837), William Dyce (1837), G.F. Watts (from 1845), D.G. Rossetti (from c. 1846) and Alexander Munro (1852). Hallé, with his international experience and outlook, must have known many of these versions. Ingres had been an early mentor and would have led him back to Flaxman, while as a young man in Rome, interested in the Nazarenes, he had probably seen Koch's fresco in the Casino Massimo. Dyce's painting, also in the Nazarene tradition, was in the Royal Scottish Academy, and Rossetti's various treatments had been much exhibited following the artist's death in 1882. Finally, there was Watts's definitive version of a long-meditated composition (Watts Gallery, Compton), shown at the Grosvenor in 1879, seen there again in his one-man exhibition in the winter of 1881-2, but only finally completed in 1884. This would have been Hallé's immediate precedent, and he may even have thought of his own picture as in some sense a pendant, choosing to work on a similar scale while opting for the alternative subject (Watts had painted the lovers in hell on a canvas 60 x 51in). Hallé's picture appeared seven years after Patience, but it is certainly a late expression of the phenomenon that inspired Gilbert to describe Bunthorne as a 'Francesca da Rimini, miminy piminy, je ne sais quoi young man'.