Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950)

Edward Caruana Dingli was the second of five siblings born on the 10th of August 1876 in Queensway Valletta. His fatherRaphael (b.1846) held the rank of Major in the Royal Malta regiment of Militia, while his mother Martha Garrone (b.1849) was from a prominent Gozitan family. His younger brother Robert (1882-1940) eventually became a highly acclaimed artist focusing mainly on landscape 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 Fredrick.

Following his father’s footsteps, Edward officially joined the Maltese Militia at nineteen years of age. At the time, he painted as a hobby influenced by his father’s cousin Raffael Caruana Dingli (1851-1915), himself a commercial amateur artist. Still, Edward’s artistic skill could take him so much further than that. In fact, his first breakthrough came at the age of 21, when he was commissioned to illustrate the popular book Historical Records of the Maltese Corps in the British Army by Major Alexander George Chesney. This critical springboard revealed his abilities to a broader audience and strengthened his confidence. Indeed, in the first year, Edward made his first appearance in public by participating in the Eposizione Industriale Maltese and gained his first public words of praise.

Edward Caruana Dingli obtained 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 was 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 to Malta and shaped the style of 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. Despite a shaky financial start, eventually, prestigious commissions started pouring in from the most distinguished Maltese families and influential 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.

However, 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 is where 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 Hohenstein (1850-1931). Back in Malta, the artist found a market thirsty for his work and soon started various chains of portrait commissions for prominent buildings in Malta, such as the Old University, the Chamber of Conference and the Chamber of Advocates, and the Grandmaster’s Palace. The widely 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 H.M King George A a viva. He gained this commission shortly after being given the title of Honorary Knight of Grace of the Venerable Order of St. John of Jerusalem on the 25th of March 1926 for several works he brilliantly painted for St. John’s Gatehouse in Clerkenwell. The portrait of King George V was an extraordinary success, applauded even by the King himself, who referred to his work as His, “Live Picture”. Infinite articles were published in local and British papers claiming the outstanding achievement 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 subjects ordinary people in the street, vendors, women in faldetta, farmers, and even beggars. He occasionally used the same models like his nieces Helen, Josephine and Mary Rizzo Mariche, Nella Briffa and even his housemaids. At times he fused two models 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 Mariche.

His Maltese landscapes absorbed much of the typical Maltese characteristics, enhanced by the bright sun and the play light cast on the rubble walls of the modest farmhouses. As part of the campaign to promote Malta in other countries, in 1928, Caruana Dingli won all the prizes for best designs to promote Malta in the British Exhibition at Wembley with his “Orange Seller”, “Lady Faldetta”, and “Giant Neptune”. Furthermore, in 1927, Caruana Dingli was selected by the Maltese Tourism Committee to publish a good number of his Maltese watercolour landscape in an album, The Colour and Life of Malta, which gained recognition locally and overseas.

In 1930 Caruana Dingli was promoted to Director and Teacher of Painting and Technical of the Malta Government School of Art, which started operating four years before this date. With this enrolment, Caruana Dingli gained control of the Maltese artistic sphere. Under his directorship emerged a very important group of young artists who later introduced the modern idiom in local art, namely Esprit Barthet, Anton Inglott, Willie Apap, Giorgio Preca and Emvin Cremona, amongst many others.

In conclusion, Edward Caruana Dingli continued to paint even after being seriously ill between 1947 and 1948. He died of heart failure on the 9th of May 1950 in his apartment in South Street, Valletta.