Archetypal Character Study - Mary Cassatt


The Gesture
of Maternal Embrace:
The Archetype of
Mariposa Lily
in the
Artwork of Mary Cassatt


by Karen Lohmann


“And every fair and every good
Known in part or known impure
To men below,
In their archetypes endure.”

From Celestial Love by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Introduction: Archetypes are universal forces originating at the highest levels of creation to shape the physical world of nature as well as the human soul. Larger than a single "thing," they are the prototypes or patterns that emanate from the spiritual world and are revealed in symbols, images and gestures. Flowers are an exquisite expression of these archetypal forces. The unique forms, colors, aromas and textures of each flower are larger than any single part—each flower emanates an over-arching quality. It is these archetypal forces that transcend physical chemistry and are to be found in the unique healing pattern of each flower essence.

One of the aims of the FES Practitioner Certification Program is to help each student come into greater awareness of archetypal reality, both in the language and images of the soul, and in the larger soul expressions of Nature. The ability to become articulate in this language is fundamental to practitioner skill in flower essence therapy. A core assignment involves exploration of an archetype that can be clearly evidenced in visual art, literature, film, human biography or larger culture, and how this archetype is reflected in the context of a particular flower archetype.

Karen Lohmann, graduate of the 2003 FES Practitioner Certification Program reviews the tender paintings of Mary Cassatt and their impressive relationship to the archetypal qualities of Mariposa Lily.

Read “Mariposa Lily in the Soul of Nature” by Patricia Kaminski


Mariposa Lily addresses issues of being held; parental and especially maternal healing and nurturing; mother-love.

In thinking about the soul archetype of Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), I was struck by her uses of the maternal in her paintings. She is known for her depictions of women and children. (She began painting this subject matter only after the death of her mother.) Ms. Cassatt had no children of her own and she witnessed the losses of her siblings to early deaths. Her mother's grief over these loses in particular, was a strong influence on her subject matter and her inner life. She was close to her siblings and used them, and her nieces and nephews, as models for her work. She was constantly working on her relationship to the universal themes of mothering by painting intimate, affectionate and casual poses, that have a core feeling of wistful yearning. She shows this by the positioning of her female subjects in the majority of her best known art works. Simple domestic activities such as apple picking, bathing, a family reading, bedtime rituals or just women sitting quietly, dominate these works. The gestures of women's hands and young children being held in passive posses permeate the themes of her work. There is a far-away longing in the eyes of many of her subjects as they gaze into the distance.

I believe her work was healing for her initially, then was also instrumental in the larger societal healing with regards to the positive role of motherhood, the Suffrage Movement (of which she was an ardent supporter and participant) and expressing the vulnerability and tenderness of childhood. Her own childhood was shadowed by her siblings deaths.

Some of the first influences of her artistic life were painters from the Italian Renaissance who created Madonna and baby Jesus compositions. The painter Degas once said of one of her typical maternal works, "It has all your qualities and all your faults. It is baby Jesus and his English Nanny." (Reine Lefabvre—Holding a Nude Baby) She did not always have the support of her peers, but she proceeded to paint what she wanted.

Mariposa Lily addresses issues of being held, parental and especially maternal healing. I chose Mariposa Lily as the archetypal essence for Mary Cassatt for the obvious mother-centered themes, and for the undertones of the moods she created in her works of holding and being held, of stoic feminine figures in comforting gestures.

In the FES Certification Program, eight levels of "Meta-Flora" soul identify are outlined, in consideration of the full development of human potential. The meta-flora level expressed by the life and works of Mary Cassatt is the Fifth Level: the Venus archetype—building the chalice of the soul, cultivating beauty, sexuality, sensitivity, compassion and artistry. She was an artist from a very young age and was determined to study abroad in Paris and fulfill her destiny as an artist. Art became her life through hard work and talent (even though she was of a privileged class); being a female in the arts meant she had to persevere to be taken seriously. Her sensuality is expressed in her execution and choice of subjects for her paintings. The simple drape of common floral fabrics contrasted with the nape of a female neck being nuzzled by a fat-faced, sleepy baby, engenders the love of the maternal and compassion for the child.

Consult the Society Members' page for affirmations
for all of the Quintessential and English flower essences.

The sexuality in her artwork is understated due to the subject matter of her mother/child themes and situations, yet the robust, round, rosy-cheeked women in intimate home-centered activities like bathing and fruit-picking do imply a healthy attitude towards women's bodies, and a casual, earthy quality that says sexuality is present.

She uses a garden setting for her famous mural "Modern Woman," Hall of Honor, Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition—Chicago 1893, which shows her commitment to the changing role of feminism in her day. In a letter she wrote to a friend, Cassatt states, in regard to this mural, "An American friend asked me in a rather huffy tone the other day, 'Then this is woman apart from her relation to man?' I told him it was. Men, I have no doubt, are painted in all their vigor on the walls of the other buildings; to us the sweetness of childhood, the charm of womanhood, if I have not conveyed some sense of that charm, in one word, if I have not been absolutely feminine, then I have failed."(1) Mariposa Lily exemplifies this role of the feminine.

In her desire to express the feminine in an equalized role to men, as able to pick the fruits of science and knowledge, she exposes the intellectual, the scientific, and reaches for a place beyond the garden—to a "fruitfulness other than maternity."(2) The Venus Archetype is indeed an example of the same fruitfulness beyond, before or through maternity. The Archetype of Mariposa Lily seen in the gesture of Mariposa Lily with open arms reaching to heal the inner child and the Mother-child relationship informs us through the art of Mary Cassatt.

Bibliography and Footnotes:

Mary Cassatt by Nancy Hale 1975

Cassatt and Her Circle. Collected Letters, Edited by: Nancy Mowll Mathews, 1984 (footnote #1)

Mary Cassatt: The Color Prints, by Nancy Hale Mathews, 1989

Cassatt Painter of Modern Woman, by Griselda Pollock (footnote #2)

Paintings above, in the order they appear:
La Toilette 1891
Baby's First Caress
Mother and Child Against a Green Background (Maternity) 1897


Read “Mariposa Lily in the Soul of Nature” by Patricia Kaminski


Karen Lohmann attended the 2003 Practitioner Training Program and went on to complete the requirements of the Certification Program in 2004. Karen has a private practice out of her home and is also a longtime florist; both businesses are named FlorAbunda.  Her pastel images of wildflowers will soon be available in a card-deck booklet set called A Medicine of Place-Pacific Northwest Wildflower Cards to be used for oracle/ botanical education and meditation with flower essence clients. She is a landscape designer with residential and public art pieces in Olympia, Washington. Karen has trained with the local hospice to be part of their "Comfort Care Team" and is honored to be doing work with the flower essences on so many levels. She holds a B.A. degree from the Evergreen State College and is a registered counselor in Washington State.


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