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The Unsung Woman Artist Behind Your Tarot Cards

In 1909, Pamela Colman Smith collaborated with occultist A. E. Waite on the most popular tarot deck of the 20th century.

Illustrations by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite tarot deck (1909) (courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)
Illustrations by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite tarot deck (1909, reprinted in 1937) (courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library)

As Halloween approaches, it offers a chance to delve into the occult, phantasmagoric, otherworldly, and haunted aspects of our world. In a series of posts, we’re exploring art history that offers a portal to a darker side of culture.

The Hermit with his cloak and lantern, the Hanged Man suspended from one foot, the High Priestess seated between two columns — these are all familiar figures to those who practice divination. The most widely used tarot cards, and the first to be mass-marketed in English with original art, are the ones comprising the Rider-Waite tarot deck, first issued in 1909. The 78 illustrations on the cards cemented certain visuals in modern tarot, and accompanying each you’ll find a small monogram of a “P” crossed with a looping “C” and “S.” The letters stand for Pamela Colman Smith, the unsung artist of popular tarot.

Pamela Colman Smith in 1912 (via Wikimedia)
Pamela Colman Smith in 1912 (via Wikimedia)

Born in England in 1878 to a merchant from Brooklyn, Smith spent time in New York City, London, and Kingston, Jamaica. Nicknamed Pixie, she was an early-20th-century illustrator inspired as much by 19th-century symbolists as Art Nouveau. When Alfred Stieglitz staged the first non-photography exhibition at his Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (later called 291), in 1907, he chose Smith’s work. At different points in her life, you could call her an illustrator, a children’s book author, a storyteller, a set designer, and an active member of the 20th-century occult movement. She collaborated with Jack Yeats, younger brother of W. B., on a series of 1902–03 broadsheets with colored prints (you can find a collection of them online at the University of Pittsburgh) and published collected and illustrated Jamaican stories in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In Retrievals, his 2014 book on underrecognized cultural figures, Garrett Caples writes that while at Pratt Institute, Smith learned about synesthesia from artist Arthur Wesley Dow, and much of her work “depicted imagery spontaneously brought to her mind while listening to music by the likes of Beethoven, Bach, and Schumann: ‘what I see when I hear music-thoughts loosened and set free from the spell of sound,’ as she wrote in a 1908 article.” In a 1907 watercolor — “Overture. ‘Egmont’ Beethoven” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum — the head of a woman becomes a cliff on which figures stand against a fluid background. A similar, undulating use of line and color informs an undated watercolor at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in which purple and gray waves merge with female forms, while ships sail in the distance.

"The fool" in the Rider-Waite tarot deck (via Wikimedia)
“The fool” in the Rider-Waite tarot deck (via Wikimedia)

Tarot was not always concerned with divination: back in the medieval era, it was a trick-taking game. But by the time British occultist A. E. Waite collaborated with Smith on the deck, issued by the Rider company, it had become a tool for spiritual guidance. Both Waite and Smith (along with a cast of curious characters, from Aleister Crowley to Bram Stoker) were members of the Order of the Golden Dawn, which influenced contemporary interpretations of the occult. Peter Bebergal wrote in The New Yorker that Waite “saw magic not as a means to power but as a path toward a higher consciousness.” Smith also brought her own research to the symbolism of the cards.

Smith’s life as a career artist contributed in some ways to the obscurity that followed her 1951 death; steady illustration work and the fact that she dabbled in a wealth of fields have made her legacy difficult to pin down. Recently her name has been revived somewhat, as with the 100th anniversary of the Rider-Waite Deck, a Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set; issued by U.S. Games Systems, it comes complete with a biography of the artist by Stuart R. Kaplan. More importantly, though, her art remains alive every time a card is drawn from the Rider-Waite deck, which should rightfully be called the Rider-Waite-Smith deck. Each ominous specter of death on a horse or trepidatious wheel of fortune, as depicted by Smith, offers personal guidance through direct, captivating imagery.

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