Clemson students Alexis Anthony, left, and Mary Vargo stand on a pathway, surrounded by flowers, in Claude Monet's gardens in France.

Alexis Anthony, left, and Mary Vargo in Claude Monet’s garden.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

As a self-taught horticulturalist with a master’s eye for light, Claude Monet arranged his gardens as he wished to paint them. For five weeks this summer, two Clemson students spent their days in those same gardens, planting flowers as Monet would have planted them.

In Monet’s time (1840-1926), his gardens in Giverny, France, gave inspiration to various scenes that would later be enshrined in the great museums of the world. Today, gardeners work to preserve the intertwined legacies of those paintings and gardens. Seniors Mary Vargo and Alexis Anthony feel fortunate to have been a part of that effort as summer interns.

The students – both horticulture majors – entered the gardens at 7 a.m. and worked until 2:30 p.m from Monday through Friday for the five weeks they were in France. They “deadheaded” and replaced the spring flowerbeds with summer flowerbeds, while learning new techniques and philosophies and gaining valuable field experience.

As part of their work, they explained the history of Monet’s house and gardens to visitors. But to fully communicate those ideas, they had to understand how Monet’s gardens and his paintings interacted. They assisted the gardeners in their efforts to reproduce, in physical form, the look of the gardens as they would have looked in the artist’s time.

“It was pretty neat to see the worlds of art and plants converge,” Vargo said.

“The planting (in the gardens) is based on spacing, flower shape, flower size, how tall they are going to be,” Anthony said. “So learning about the different methods Monet used to choose plants – that’s a huge thing. You can look at gardens in other places, and you can see that the heights don’t match up and that there’s not really fluidity in the garden. The gardeners were able to explain why they planted so closely or so far away.”

Claude Monet's house in Giverny, France.

Claude Monet’s house in Giverny, France.

Vargo and Anthony helped explain those techniques to the public.

“Getting to watch people understand the method was really spectacular,” Anthony said. “It clicks in their mind that, oh wow, this is not just some kind of crazy garden full of flowers that are planted randomly.”

During their time in Giverny, a village on the bank of the River Seine, Vargo and Anthony lived in a house owned by the Claude Monet Foundation. The house wasn’t far from the gardens, and the students could bike into the nearby town of Vernon to buy groceries.

Paris was close, and they were able to take day trips into the capital to take in the art and architecture. They even viewed Monet’s paintings in person for the first time. When they weren’t traveling they often sat by the Seine, dodging the geese and basking in the warmth.

“The Seine was amazing,” Vargo said. “It was just a bike ride away, and we’d be right there.”

For Vargo, Giverny was a dream location. As an admirer of the famed Impressionist painter, she kept copies of his paintings in her house. She felt that she understood his obsession with light and color, and admired his ability as a self-taught horticulturalist. A conversation with her adviser, environmental landscape specialist Ellen Vincent, introduced her to the internship opportunity. With Vincent’s recommendation, Vargo applied. Anthony, who was looking for an adventure that also would help her professional development, soon followed suit.

Clemson horticulture student Mary Vargo sits in a boat on a pond covered in water lilies in Claude Monet's gardens.

Mary Vargo works in a pond on Monet’s property.
Image Credit: Courtesy photo

The Claude Monet Foundation accepted both Vargo and Anthony, so they loaded up their bags, set their expectations and departed for France. By the time they packed their bags to leave France, the students had accumulated more than a vast amount of professional experience. They had acquired an appreciation for a formerly foreign culture.

And Vargo had discovered a new source of motivation. “One of those things you don’t have a class on is how to have a passion for this,” she said. “You can get pretty bogged down with schoolwork and coursework, but I think it just refreshed my horticultural passion and drive. This is what I want to do.”

The future, it seems, isn’t quite as intimidating as it could be.

“I think, more than anything, it’s reassuring that I can do this, that I have a competitive edge over people with this internship,” Vargo said. “This is the top of the game.”