Edward Caruana Dingli Art Exhibition
Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950)
Edward Caruana Dingli had what it takes to make him one of Malta’s most prominent and gifted portrait painters of all time. His immense popularity as a “ritrattista” extended overseas amid the British Realm. Apart from the vital imprint on the Maltese portrait tradition, he pioneered the treatment of Maltese folklore, which he elevated to authentic works of art.
Born on the 10th August 1876 in Queensway Valletta, Edward Caruana Dingli was the second out of five siblings. His father Raphael (b.1846) held the rank of Major in the Royal Malta Regiment of Militia, while his mother Martha Garrone (b.1849) came from a prominent Gozitan family. His younger brother Robert (1882-1940) eventually also became a highly acclaimed artist focusing mainly on landscapes and religious works. At the age of 24, Edward married Charlotte Falzon (1880-1960) who bore him two sons; George, who eventually reached the rank of Brigadier in the British Army and Frederick.
Following his father’s footsteps Edward entered the Maltese Militia officially at nineteen years of age. At the time he painted as a hobby influenced by his father’s cousin Raffaele Caruana Dingli (1851-1915), himself a commercial amateur artist. Still Edward did what he could in these restrictive confines. At the age of 21, he was commissioned to illustrate the popular book “Historical Records of the Maltese Corps in the British Army” by Major Alexander George Chesney, an important springboard that revealed his abilities to a wider audience and strengthened his confidence. Indeed in the same year Edward made his first appearance in public by participating in the “Esposizione Industriale Maltese” and gained his first published words of praise. Edward Caruana Dingli had his primary formal artistic education at the Lyceum during the drawing classes of Giuseppe Calleja (1828-1915) from whom he gained strength in design. But it was Giuseppe Cali’ (1846-1930) who revealed to be his true mentor and inspiration. Cali’ encouraged him in his move towards realism tinged with romantic idealism. Caruana Dingli persisted in this style even though the movements that shook Europe filtered in Malta and shaped the style of his contemporary artists.
His artistic ambitions led him to give up his military career in 1913 and earn his living entirely through painting. It was a risky decision that did not come akin with his family members. Apart from a shaky financial start eventually prestigious commissions started pouring in from the most prominent Maltese families and from important British personalities with whom the artist was very well acquainted. Edward posted himself as the society painter du jour and became one of the most popular Maltese artists. But he aimed even higher. Although his talent was unquestionable, Edward did not have an official recognition as an artist. He toured around Europe to study Old Masters. In 1920 he spent a year studying at the British Academy in Rome. There he was offered the prestigious post of Honorable Secretary of the Academy by its director, the prominent Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino (1879-1947). During his sojourn in Rome Caruana Dingli painted the posthumous portrait of the Grandmaster of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Fra Giovanni Battista Ceschi di Santa Croce (1827-1905) for the Palazzo di Malta in Rome. This portrait was so admired that it earned him the prestigious conferment of Knight of Magisterial Grace of the Sovereign Order of Malta by Prince, Fra Galeazzo von Thun and Hohenstein (1850-1931).
Back in Malta the artist found a market thirsty for his work and soon started off various chains of portrait commissions for prominent buildings in Malta such as the Old University, the Chamber of Commerce and the Chamber of Advocates as well as in the Grandmaster’s Palace. The envied opportunity of Edward Caruana Dingli came in 1928 when he was assigned by the Order of St. John in Clerkenwell in London to paint from life H.M. King George V. He gained this commission shortly after he was decorated Honorary Knight of Grace of the Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem on the 25th March 1926 for a number of works he brilliantly painted for St. John’s Gatehouse in Clerkenwell.
The Portrait of King George V was an extraordinary success, admired even by the King himself referring to this work as his, “live picture”. Infinite articles were published in local and British papers claiming the great achievements of this Maltese artist and winning him further commissions to paint other members of the British Monarchy. When not hard at work on his portrait commissions Caruana Dingli transformed genre scenes into another form of portraiture, taking as a subject matter common people in the streets, vendors, women in “faldetta”, farmers and even beggars. He occasionally made use of the same models like his nieces Helen, Josephine and Mary Rizzo Marich, Nella Briffa and even his housemaids. At times he fused two models together in one work. Indeed the popular Lady in “Faldetta” (part of the Phoenicia collection) is said to have the face of Nella Briffa and the body of Helen Rizzo Marich. His Maltese landscapes absorb so much of the typical Maltese characteristics enhanced by the bright sun and the play of light and shade it casts on the rubble walls and on the modest farmhouses. As part of the campaign in promoting Malta in other countries, in 1923 Caruana Dingli won all the prizes for best designs to promote Malta in the British Exhibition at Wembley with his Orange Seller, Lady in “Faldetta” and Giant Neptune.
Further more in 1927, Caruana Dingli was selected by the Maltese Tourism Committee to publish a good number of his Maltese watercolour landscapes in an album, “The Colour and Life of Malta”, gaining high recognition locally and also overseas. In 1930 Edward Caruana Dingli was promoted Director and Teacher of Painting and Technical Design of the Malta Government School of Art, which started operating four years before this date. With this enrollment Caruana Dingli gained the control of the Maltese artistic sphere.
Under his directorship flourished a very important group of young artists who later introduced the modern idiom in local art, namely Esprtit Barthet, Anton Inglott, Willie Apap, Gorgio Preca and Emvin Cremona amongst many others.
Edward Caruana Dingli continued to paint even after he was seriously taken ill between 1947 and 1948. He died of heart failure on the 9th May 1950 aged 73 in his apartment in South Street, Valletta.
Written by Nadine Debattista Briffa - M.A. (Hist. of Art), Edward Caruana Dingli: A Portrait Painter, unpublished M.A. Thesis, University of Malta, 2006.
All paintings shown above (with the exception of the self portrait) are part of the permanent exhibition at Hotel Phoenicia Malta
Read other articles about works by Edward Caruana Dingli Click here