Dante's damned lovers Paolo et Francesca, a subject with which Scheffer employed himself on and off for over thirty-three years, remains this artist's most famous image. Described by Scheffer's contemporary biographer Mrs. Grote as "the greatest of the products of Scheffer's poetic pencil which burst upon the world of art" , the first version of the painting, now in the Wallace collection, was once recognized as one of the masterpieces of the century. Mention of a painting titled Les ombres de Françoise de Rimini et son amant apparaissant au Dante et Virgile first appears listed under Scheffer's name in the Salon livrets as early as 1822 and 1824, but apparently no such subject was exhibited either year and it is likely that it remained only a project. The painting appeared at last in the Salon of 1835, described in the livret as belonging to the Duc d'Orléans (now in the Wallace Collection). Receiving high acclaim for the painting, Scheffer was awarded the Legion d'Honneur following the close of the Salon. The enormous popularity of this work encouraged the artist to paint a number of replicas in various sizes, at times with subtle changes. Those replicas which are dated generally come from the 1850s. Though Scheffer continued throughout his career to have a remarkable facility for a wide range of styles (viewed by his critics as stylistic hesitancy), his works on a monumental scale during the 1840s tended to be in his cool, refined Ingresque manner. His later production of major replicas of his triumphant Francesca suggests a reinvestigation of his earlier, more "Rembrandt-esque" style. In addition, Scheffer's financial situtation following the 1848 Revolution was far from secure and the replication of the famous Francesca may have been a happy means of increasing his income.
The Francesca's fame and popularity were spread through numerous engravings, reaching a broad international audience, despite Scheffer's withdrawal from public exhibition after the Salon of 1846. Though more "progressive" camps complained from the mid-1840s on that Scheffer's work was too sentimental, he continued to have a strong following of admirers and collectors even after his death. In 1860 Zola could still write to Cézanne:
Je ne sais si tu connais Ary Scheffer, ce peintre de génie mort l'année dernière...Scheffer était un amant passioné de l'idéal, tous ces types sont purs, aeriens, presques diaphanes. Il était poète dans touts l'acception du mot, ne peignant presque pas le réel, abordant les sujets les plus sublimes, les plus délirants. Veux-tu riens de plus poetique que, d'une poésie étrange et navrante, que sa Françoise de Rimini?
This success was on an international scale with admirers in England and througout Europe. George Eliot, upon seeing the Francesca at Gambart's French Gallery in London in 1854, 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.
The impact of the tormented couple continued after the artist's death, having a wide range of influence. In 1867, nine years after Scheffer's death, the image of the damned lovers appeared on Worcester porcelain. Even later in the century Rodin's own treatment of Dante's Inferno and the Paolo and Francesca tale was affected by Scheffer's composition, from the entwined, tortured pose of the lovers to the molten, barely decipherable suggestion of Hell behind.
The subject of this episode from the Inferno was evidently suggested to Scheffer by Hyacinthe Didot. Rather than the historical moment in which their fate is sealed in an adulterous kiss -- a romantic scene with opportunities for drama and picturesque medieval costume and interior which painters such as Coupin de la Couperie, Ingres, and others depicted -- Scheffer represents Dante, in red, and Virgil, wearing a blue cloak and a laurel wreath, encountering the shades or spirits of the murdered Paolo and Francesca in Hell. The lovers' semi-nude figures are suspended against a turbid, swirling background of other barely perceived tormented souls. Entwined togther in semi-transparent drapery, their souls blown about for all eternity, they bear the wounds by which they died. Paolo leans back, his left arm half-covering his anguished face while Francesca, her eyes closed, clings to him, her arms wrapped around his shoulder. The composition, the sweep of the two figures across the canvas, was derived from Flaxman's plates of Compositions from the Tragedies of Aeschylus, particularly the Vision of Helen, a debt Scheffer willingly acknowledged.
This intimately sized version of the Francesca is dedicated to Pauline Viardot (1821 -1900), a celebrated opera singer of the period and friend/protegé of George Sand. Mme. Viardot was the wife of Scheffer's old friend Louis Viardot (a writer, art critic and political figure), and became a close personal friend of the artist herself. The Viardots were part of the circle of musical and literary friends which gathered at Scheffer's studio before he withdrew from public life, and they continued to be close to him until his death. The artist painted a portrait of this fascinating, if not beautiful woman in 1840. Scheffer was evidently one of many men, including the poet Musset, in love with Mme. Viardot -- though he did not tell her until the end of his life when he felt it could no longer matter. Scheffer acted as a father-figure and confidante for Pauline, especially with regard to her tumultuous and passionate love affair with Ivan Tourgeniev, the Russian poet, whom she met for the first time in 1843.
As a deeply religious and moral man, Scheffer encouraged Pauline to break with Tourgeniev and to choose her marriage, family, and career over her passionate love. As she later wrote to Julius Rietz: "...without Ary Scheffer I would have committed a great sin -- for I had lost my will power -- I recovered it in time to break my heart and do my duty. I had my reward later..." The rupture between Tourgeniev and Pauline and her reconciliation with Louis occurred sometime between the summer of 1850 and early 1851. A separation of three years followed, after which Ivan and Pauline were reunited; she may have been hoping for a platonic relationship which proved impossible as another, more decisive, break came at the end of 1856. Considering Scheffer's consultative role in this drama, it is not surprising to find the artist dedicating to Pauline an image of Paolo and Francesca, which warns of the hellish results of adultery and of giving in to passion. Though his initial involvement with the subject was unrelated to Mme. Viardot (she would have been a small child at the time), surely in painting this work for his dear friend, the implications would have been suggestive.
A thematic explanation is hardly necessary to account for the dedication of this work to Mme. Viardot; Pauline herself, like many of her contemporaries, was interested in Dante and attempted some translations of her own from the Italian. In addition, it would have been natural for Scheffer to give his friend a copy of his most famous work. However, the intimate scale of the work and certain aspects of the affair invite a more personal reading of the painting. Regarding Pauline, George Sand wrote in her diary:
...what skill in organizing her life and preserving her inner calm! I admire that young star, she will shine for a long time, and I am not surprised that I, who have never known how to spare myself any inner anguish, have lost all my fire so quickly.
This preservation of her "inner calm" seems to have been key to Pauline's life; it is a topic which she writes of in her letters and which governed her choices and actions. "Pauline considered that no emotion at all was better than an emotion which might interfere with the smooth running of her career." For Paolo and Francesca in the Inferno, it is the lack of calm and rest, the being blown about constantly by the wind, which is the torment of "carnal sinners who subject reason to desire." In following Scheffer's advice and ending her love affair, Pauline chose the peace for her life which Francesca could never have. This painting may have represented more than a token of friendship; it may have served as a reminder or a warning to Pauline to assist her in her resistance of her passion when Ary Scheffer could not be there to advise her. While we must leave the dating of this work to the broad range from the time of the Viardots' marriage in April 1840 to Scheffer's death in 1858, it is tempting to suggest a date of late 1850 to early 1851, the time of Pauline's break with Tourgeniev and the same moment in which Scheffer was working on the Francesca in its most monumental scale for his friend Krasinski.