Studying Art History at Trinity: Learning Inside and Outside of the Classroom

By Xinyi Ye

Visiting Student Blogger, Tsinghua University


Before I came to Trinity, “what department will you be studying in?” was one question my friends had for me the most frequently. It’s true that I major in Chinese literature in my home university, which means it’s hard to find a course in Europe to meet the requirements of a department of Chinese literature in China. But actually, when I decided to spend a semester in Trinity, I thought it was time for me to try something different, especially try something really European and Irish. So I signed up for modules in art history, and started my semester abroad in a brand new field. I am taking two modules from the department of History of Art this semester. One of them is Introduction to History of European Art and Architecture, which is more general, and the other is Art and Sculpture in Europe in the 17th Century, which is more specific. Both modules consist of lectures and tutorials; the lectures give introductions and the professors’ ideas on the artists, the works and the concepts of a certain period of time, and the tutorials let students present their own ideas after reading and preparation, focusing on specific topics with the guidance of the professor.

The first week of the classes, however, was not only learning art but also learning a new language. Although I started to learn English when I was in primary school, I had never built up my vocabulary for art before, not to mention the large amount of Italian words used to describe art! Understanding the professors’ words and trying not to be misled by the Chinese definition of those terms (they can be really confusing, trust me) was really challenging. After figuring out what the professors meant accurately, I tried to think deeply about the paintings and the artists, and went to talk to the professors for help when I thought I fell behind. Now half of the semester has passed and I have made some progress. Although there is always much more to learn, I can give you a brief introduction to the paintings when visiting art galleries in Europe!


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Besides going to classes, another way to learn about art in Dublin is by exploring the city. Visiting museums and galleries is a perfect way to learn something about art at any time. Art galleries of all sizes and genres can be found everywhere in Dublin. The National Gallery of Ireland, whose front façade and entrance hall were designed based on a famous art work by Mondrian, is the biggest and most important art gallery in Ireland, where paintings by famous artists -Van Gogh, William Turner, etc.


And what’s more exciting is that this year they are holding an exhibition called Beyond Caravaggio, showing masterpieces of Caravaggio and his followers from collections around Europe in one gallery! I went to the exhibition with the Visual Art Society under the guidance of our professor. There are no words that could describe my excitement when the original painting of Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by the Lizard and the Taking of Christ appeared in front of me when I stepped into the gallery. And seeing the original paintings really helped me to understand the concepts in the lectures better.


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The urban landscape of Dublin is a combination of buildings from different periods of time. So by just going out and wandering around the streets you can learn much about the history of architecture. I remember the professor saying “go to see the city hall just two blocks away” when he was explaining the major and minor orders of European architecture. Every day that I go out shopping or just for a walk, I look at the architecture on the streets and try to analyze it with the knowledge that I learned from the classes. I even can’t take my eyes off the delicate ornaments in the buildings on Dame Street after learning about the names and patterns of the decorations: I always spot something surprising and new to me when I pass by!

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For understanding the paintings and architecture we covered in classes, visiting galleries and seeing architecture may be a good choice. But studying art history is far more than being familiarized with the masterpieces themselves. In most cases, you won’t really understand the methods and techniques in certain paintings before you try to paint one! Luckily, Trinity College provides students with that opportunity to try art yourself. I took the drop-in classes in the Trinity Arts Workshop to learn watercolor drawing. It gave me a strong feeling that it was my turn to be responsible for the colors and shapes on paper. I started by painting a picture of sunset and then moved on to landscapes and still lifes. Recently, I have been painting a picture of flowers in the drop-in class. It is more difficult than the landscapes, but more fun, and requires a deeper understanding of the colors and the light and shades, as well as an additional sense of spring that is arriving in Dublin.

Time flies and half of my semester as an art history student has passed. I feel very lucky that I can adapt to my student life here and really learn something new with the help of many people and rich resources in Trinity and in Dublin city. I’m sure the second half of the semester will still be challenging and exciting. It is not only a bite of art and European culture, but also a fantastic journey to discover a new me in a new field with a new way of seeing and thinking about the world.


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