Alexandre Cabanel: The Death of Francesca de Rimini and Paolo Malatesta
In The Death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, Cabanel shows us Dante’s murdered lovers draped across a sofa while their assailant, Francesca’s husband, peers out at them from between the curtains at the back of the room, grasping a bloody sword. An abundance of richly patterned fabrics, delicately colored and accented with shining bits of gold, envelops and surrounds the nearly motionless figures. Cabanel gives us no action to speak of and no gaze directed at us.
The critics of 1870 perceived that Cabanel’s Death of Francesca substituted surface effects for narrative structure. Ménard regretted that the incoherent vivacity of Cabanel’s colors negated dramatic unity, while Castagnary called The Death of Francesca a deplorable package of fabrics. Similarly, Lafenestre complained that the first impression of the painting, instead of conveying grief and terror, suggested “a spread of fabrics in the display window of a store.” After sorting out the scene, Lafenestre continued, one finally noticed the timid drops of blood, but still the figure of the husband, compressed between curtains at the back of the composition, failed to respond properly to the logic of the composition: “he has the air of a sightseer coming to take a look rather than a murderer fleeing.” Likewise, Astruc characterized the painting as all skin and surface and careful execution, remarking that Cabanel paid more attention to fabrics than flesh and wondering why he emphasized “the ridiculous figure of the husband, stuck like a piece of cardboard between two curtains.” [Dianne W. Pitman, Bazille: Purity, Pose, and Painting in the 1860s, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1998, pp. 23-24]