Thomas B. Formosa (1874-1939) – a watercolour master painter

The painting of a Sudanese tribesman by Thomas Formosa.The painting of a Sudanese tribesman by Thomas Formosa.

Thomas B. Formosa was born on December 18, 1874, in Vittoriosa, the fifth offspring of a sibship of 14 children. His father was Giuseppe Lorenzo Formosa and his mother Violante Tagliaferro. Both parents were from Vittoriosa.

Violante was the sister of Francesco Napoleone Tagliaferro, the well-known mathematician better known to his friends and colleagues as simply ‘Napuljun’. Violante’s family reportedly lived in Desain Street in Vittoriosa, in the house presently occupied by the Nationalist Party Club. The family later moved to Sliema.

Little is known about Thomas Formosa except that he probably attended the Lyceum where he also took art lessons. Sometime later he emigrated to Egypt. He died on July 22, 1939, in Cairo, where he is buried.

He probably flourished in Egypt, where many of his paintings should be found. Perhaps this is the reason why Nicholas De Piro, in his International Dictionary of Artists Who Painted Malta, says that “only one watercolour (depicting the Lyceum staircase) has come to light. It would be interesting to assess this artist’s work by seeing more”.

The lights and shadows on the dark, glistening skin are an excellent rendition of the tribesman’s complexion, while the texture of the thick, woolen cloth with its delicate folds is a study in itself

In this regard, there is at least one other extant watercolour portrait by Thomas Formosa of what is possibly a Sudanese tribesman. This is in the private collection of Stephen Formosa.

Thomas Formosa painted this exquisite portrait when he was just 20 years old. The painting measures 24cm by 29cm. The medium chosen by the artist is watercolours, a fluid and unforgiving medium, especially if, as Formosa did, one opts for a classical approach, avoiding broad indicative washes.

A painting of pottery by Thomas Formosa when he was still a student.A painting of pottery by Thomas Formosa when he was still a student.

Clearly he was a meticulous painter; his was not a rushed job. There is no doubt that he studied his subject intensely, and given the details in the picture, he must have painted his subject from real life, as colour photography was still not fully developed at the time and could not have helped him much in his work.

Yet the painting brings out admirably the character of the tribesman. He is clearly proud of his origins. He has presented his tribal identification scars on his cheek for the artist to paint, as a soldier would when he wears his medals for his portrait.

The lights and shadows on the dark glistening skin are an excellent rendition of the tribesman’s complexion, while the texture of the thick, woollen cloth with its delicate folds is a study in itself. Although not the centre of the painting, the artist has taken pains to paint the folds very carefully. The soft muted colours of the painting are broken by the red band and the blue undervest of the tribesman.

The artist's father, Giuseppe Lorenzo Formosa.The artist's father, Giuseppe Lorenzo Formosa.

Although this is the only portrait painting by Thomas Formosa that has come to light so far, it is enough to admit him to the pantheon of accomplished watercolour portraitists. Indeed, Cottonera, and Vittoriosa in particular, ought to be proud of their gifted citizen.


I am also grateful to Stephen Formosa for kindly allowing the portrait of the Sudanese tribesman to be reproduced here, and to Martin Formosa for the details and dates in this short biography of the artist. Both gentlemen are the grandchildren of Benjamin J. Formosa, LP, an accomplished artist in his own right and the brother of Thomas.

Violante Formosa née Tagliaferro. Right: Thomas Formosa.Violante Formosa née Tagliaferro. Right: Thomas Formosa.

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