Category Archives: Art

Side Comments for the Month IV

Side Comments for the Month IV

This represents a fraction of the number of books I've read and skimmed through over the past six months.

1. I might as well come out and say it—I’m writing my first genre novel. I started last October. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come and gone and yet I am still plugging away. I broke the 60,000 word barrier a month ago. Since my personal goal is at least 100,000 words, I have a long way to go.

This is a huge achievement for myself, as all my previous attempts at writing a full-length novel have failed. It’s easy to get discouraged with a personal project when one doesn’t have much self-confidence. I hope I just didn’t jinx myself with announcing this project!

Progress on this current project has been slow since I’ve been eagerly reading up on 19th century history, social customs, and language. As a reader, anachronisms are a major pet peeve of mine, so I think I am going completely overboard with research. I started a database of archaic words and idioms, in the hopes it gives my depiction of the era more credibility.

I actually suffered a bit of a setback recently. In the middle of fact-checking, I found out a natural calamity occurred in the neighborhood where my novel is set. It infuriated me that I hadn’t known about it before. After a few days of seething, I got back to work and decided to scrap two entire chapters. It’s gotten to the point I can almost laugh about it. At the time I really felt like banging my head against the wall.

Littlefinger and his kitten companion plot world domination via AU fanfics. Tumblr, fire your engines.

2. Adam and I have finished The Wire. Now, the next time I watch Game of Thrones I am going to be thinking, Damn it, Carcetti, you used to be my favorite political sleazeball, now you’re just the sleazeball that let me down.

When we started watching, Adam told me that Aidan Gillen acts more like Littlefinger in The Wire than he does in Game of Thrones. Perhaps this statement will not make sense to anyone who hasn’t read all the G.R.R. Martin novels yet, but really, it must be seen to be believed. (He certainly wins my vote for having the cutest animal companion on an IMDB page.)

Anyway, season five was amazing. The ending was absolutely satisfying—even the heart-breaking moments were good. Most of the loose ends were tied up, and almost everyone who mattered—whether it was in season one or season four—came back for one last scene, whether it was in a montage or a cameo. I know it’s a hipster thing to fawn all over The Wire but the show does have incredible writing and plotting. If I had watched it while it was airing on TV, I probably wouldn’t have had the patience to wait week after week. But seeing it marathon-style was a schooling in crime fiction writing.

And McNulty, I’m through talking to you. I rooted for you and you broke my little fangirl heart.

An Instragram snapshot of the exhibit.

3. Two weeks ago, I went downtown with my sister and our friend Mabel to check out the Terracotta Warriors exhibit at the Asian Art Museum.

The warriors they had on display were larger than I thought they would be. I do not think they are equal to the size of Chinese males living during that era. The warriors had large, beefy hands, too, which I found absurd. Nevertheless, everything else about them was impeccable, from their hairlines to their armor.

Some of the figures still had traces of their original finish. While there were colored simulations of how the warriors must have appeared when they were first made, I actually prefer them with their current muted shades. I grew up with that mental image, so the idea they were originally painted garish colors seems an anathema to me. I first encountered their original coloring in a recent copy of National Geographic. I haven’t gotten used to it.

Aside from the warriors, the exhibit also showcased many gold and brass ornaments, some still covered with thick layers of patina. The real stand-out among these objects were the horses.

Now, I do not consider myself a horse person. As a child, I didn’t go through that classic “I want a pony” stage. The last time I was impressed with a horse, it was a beautiful ceramic specimen I saw in the Art Institute of Chicago. But those terracotta horses. Jesus Christ! Their craftsmanship made my jaw drop. They are beautiful and majestic, and they looked great from every angle. If it was possible, I would prostrate myself in front of the artisans who made those horses and asked to be made their unpaid apprentice.

The exhibit ends on May 27, so there is still time to catch it. If you are in the area, please check it out. Go for the warriors, but stay for the horses. It might be easier than flying to China.

A promotional still for Parade's End. Courtesy of BBC and HBO.

4. I also finished watching HBO-BBC’s new mini-series, Parade’s End. I wonder if Benedict Cumberbatch will ever get tired of wearing top hats and World War I uniforms, because he seems so well-suited to the Edwardian era.

I’ve never read any Ford Madox Ford or Edith Wharton, but Parade’s End reminded me of Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence (1993). The geographic and temporal settings differ but they both involve male leads who are just dying to commit adultery. Yet due to their own scruples and sense of honor, they can’t seem to bring themselves to do the deed.

The main difference may be the women they are thinking of cheating on. Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) is married to a saintly wife, while Christopher Tietjens (Benedict Cumberbatch) is shackled to the most manipulative, unfaithful bitch in London—she’s like a flapper version of Cersei Lannister. Have I said too much?

I enjoyed Parade’s End—it’s not for the impatient or those who dislike subtlety—but then I also happen to love that historical era. There’s not much in the way of fan service—Mr. Cumberbatch only takes off his shirt in the fifth episode—so if you are looking for cheap thrills, you need to look elsewhere.

For Cabin Pressure fans, there’s an added kick: Roger Allam (the guy who plays Douglas) shows up at a commanding officer in the last episodes. Every time he popped up on screen, I kept thinking, “why do I know that voice?” And then something on TV Tropes clarified it all for me. (Ye gads, Douglas outranks Martin once more! My mind is blown!) After that realization, all it needed was John Finnemore as a subservient batman. Now that would have turned Parade’s End into something incredibly surreal. I’m glad the BBC held off on that.

A Man and his Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Newton

A Man and his Muse: James Tissot and Mrs. Newton

Art books are awesome. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Serendipity led me to a book on James Tissot in the Berkeley Library. If you’ve never heard of him, it’s okay, because he’s not exactly a superstar of nineteenth century art.

I first encountered Tissot in one of my mother’s art books, Edward Lucie-Smith and Celestine Dars’s How the Rich Lived: The Painter as Witness 1870-1914 (1976). That title is incredibly snooty and I suspect that’s why my mother owned it.

As a child, all the reproductions in that book fascinated me. It was only when I was older that I actually read the accompanying essays on the incomes, manners, and scandals of the period.

How the Rich Lived furnished me with some basic education about the class divide in nineteenth century Europe. When I started reading Charlotte Brontë and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle as a girl, it helped me understand the social context of these works. Why both Mr. Rochester’s marriages were shocking and why Irene Adler was an unsuitable match for a royal personage became clear to me.

Yes, I was always an arts-and-culture nerd.

Going back to Tissot, though, I found his paintings compelling because of the repetition of the same female figure in all of them. How the Rich Lived gave scant details on Tissot, merely noting that the woman was his lover and she died young.

My inability to find out more—remember, this was the age before the internet and public libraries in Manila are in a woeful state—really frustrated me, teased as I was with this idea of a painter’s great love affair that ended in tragedy.

In any case, I simply filed the visual information away in my head and forgot about it for years.

As an adult, my interest in Tissot was rekindled when I saw one of his works at the Auckland Art Gallery. I recognized its style immediately, which included Tissot’s signature ruffled frocks and “that woman.”

It was a graceful, flighty thing that the museum was understandably proud of. One of their monographs detailed how the painting was restored after it was damaged in a botched art heist back in 1998.

Belated as it is, I’m really glad I found James Tissot, as edited by Krystyna Matyjaszkiewicz (1984). After all these years I found out the identity of the mysterious woman.


"Too Early" by Tissot. This is one of my many favorites of 19th century art. I believe Mrs. Newton is the model for the central figure (in profile). Guildhall Art Gallery, London.


Her name was Mrs. Kathleen Newton and she was described as “a hauntingly pretty Irish divorcée.” Born Kathleen Kelly, Tissot’s great love led a very interesting life even before she met him in 1876. Apparently she was sent to India to meet her fiancé, in a match set up by her family. On the trip out, however, she fell in love with another officer. Despite her feelings, Kathleen was still married off. She was only seventeen years old.

When her husband discovered the situation, scandal erupted and he sought a divorce.

It’s unclear whether Kathleen Kelly Newton was a victim of circumstance, youthful indiscretion, or even the patriarchal attitudes of the time. Online sources suggest different ideas from the essays in the Matyjaszkiewicz book. It’s all quite confusing. What’s definite is that by the time Tissot met her in England, Kathleen was a twenty-two-year-old divorcée with an illegitimate child. She would give birth to another, whom many believe was fathered by Tissot.

Despite their relationship, Mrs. Newton and Tissot lived in separate households, living across the street from each other in St. John’s Wood. (Again, some online sources state differently.) The book itself never states why they never married.

Kathleen Newton died of tuberculosis at age twenty-eight. Even after her death, Tissot continued to draw and paint her likeness. There’s no indication that he had another serious relationship again.



Tissot was an odd man. He seemed to be a calculating sort of guy: equal parts artist, hustler, and businessman.

I’m pretty sure his contemporaries didn’t know what to make of him. He was known to backbite some of his friends, like the printmaker Marcellin Desboutin and Edgar Degas. On the other hand, he was on good terms with Édouard Manet and Camille Pissarro. He received some high-profile visitors at his English home, including Berthe Morisot, who was not very impressed with anything. (To quote a caveat from the book: “Everyone probably seemed a little vulgar next to Berthe Morisot.”)

"Kathleen Newton in an Armchair" by Tissot. It's not my favorite portrait of her but it's a typical representation. All languor and illness!

As an addition to his known social weirdness, it’s been posited that Tissot was attracted to Kathleen’s sickly nature. After all, several of his paintings deal with fleeting seasons and ephemera. Tissot was definitely not bothered by depicting his muse covered in blankets, whether nursing a cold or merely looking frail.

I did not think deeply about these portrayals of Mrs. Newton before reading the Matyjaszkiewicz book. After more information on the nature of their relationship, in hindsight it all seems rather weird. Why would anyone want to capture their lover’s worst moments and romanticize them? I’m not sure what to make of it. Perhaps some Art History graduate student can make much of it for a thesis. This is going to be one of those trivial bits of history that I will turn over in my mind, time and again, in fruitless speculation regarding motive and artistic intent.

I suppose the goal of most artists is to be remembered after they are gone. In this way, Tissot succeeded, at least with me.

If you are in the Bay Area, you can check out some Tissot etchings and mezzotints at the Legion of Honor. If you are rolling in dough and wish to add to your art collection, you can buy some Tissots from the Christopher-Clark Fine Art Gallery near Union Square. Adam and I had stumbled upon this find in yet another moment of serendipity. I have a way of just chancing upon Tissot; even after this post is done, I am sure I haven’t seen the last of him yet.