The woman who created the most famous tarot deck in the world almost went down in history

Written Jackie Palumbo, CNN

Keep the question in mind, shuffle, choose cards and look into your future. For centuries, people from all walks of life have turned to the Tarot to divine what lies ahead and achieve a higher level of self-knowledge.

Mysterious card symbols are ingrained in music, art, and film culture, but the woman who inked and illustrated the most widely used set of cards today, the 1909 Rider-Waite deck, originally published by Rider & Co., has fallen into obscurity after being overshadowed by the man who commissioned it, Arthur Edward Waite.

Now, more than 70 years after her death, creator Pamela Colman Smith has been included in a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, celebrating many of the underrated artists of early 20th-century American Modernism in addition to big names like Georgia Oh Keefe and Louise Nevelson.

Eight cards from an antique Rider-Waite-Smith deck set printed between 1920 and 1930. Credit: Francis Mulhall Achilles Library; Whitney Museum of American Art

Smith, like many other female artists of the era, fell victim to the “marginalization of female achievement,” according to Barbara Haskell, the exhibition’s curator.

Smith’s entire vintage set of tarot cards is on display in Whitney’s exhibition, along with one of her dreamy 1903 watercolor and ink works, The Wave, now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Smith was a charming yet enigmatic figure, a mystic who was part of the secret occult society of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which borrowed ideas from the Cabala and Freemasonry to create their own spiritual belief system based on magic and metaphysics. Born to American parents in London, Smith spent a period of her childhood in Jamaica and stylized herself in the West Indies style, leading to conflicting reports about whether she was biracial. She also became a cult queer icon because she shared a home with a companion and business partner named Nora Lake for many years, though Haskell says it’s “unclear” if their relationship was romantic.

Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the most famous tarot deck, but her contribution was overshadowed by A. E. Waite who commissioned it.

Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the most famous tarot deck, but her contribution was overshadowed by A. E. Waite who commissioned it. Credit: public domain

In Smith’s work, “she was drawn to a kind of mystical vision of the world,” Haskell said in a telephone interview. She listened to music to unlock her subconscious and reportedly had synesthesia, a neurological condition in which a person sees shapes or colors when they hear sounds. Smith worked in a symbolist tradition that favored metaphorical and emotional imagery over everyday imagery at a time when the US was undergoing massive industrial and social change just after the turn of the 20th century.

“Her visual art really represents this moment when people find solace in more spiritual concerns, especially at a time when industry seems to be taking over, creating a sense of fragmentation and isolation,” Haskell explained.

“Totally her”

When Waite approached Smith to illustrate her vision of a reimagined tarot deck, she was 31 years old and exhibiting her paintings at the New York gallery of famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was an important supporter of her work. Waite, like Smith, was a member of the Hermetic Order, but rose to the rank of Grand Master. He carefully studied the ancient texts and wrote new ones on the subject of mysticism, and he had ideas about the concept of new cards and how they should be ordered.

"Star," from the Major Arcana.  Some of Smith's original Tarot drawings were in the collection of the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O'Keeffe Archive, now part of the Yale Library.

“Star” from the Major Arcana. Some of Smith’s original Tarot drawings were in the collection of the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive, now part of the Yale Library. Credit: Courtesy of Yale University Library.

Tarot has been around since the early 15th century in Italy, spun off from traditional playing cards. The 78 cards are divided into two groups called the Major and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana features allegorical characters such as the moon, sun, fool, and lovers, while the Minor Arcana are divided into numbered and face cards of four suits: wands, swords, cups, and pentacles. While previous decks were less graphic in nature, Smith’s deck is filled with lush imagery, making it easier for the reader to interpret them.

“He was the one who provoked the deck, there’s no doubt about that,” Haskell said. “And he probably contributed quite a bit to the Major Arcana.”

While Waite may have directed the concepts for these 22 cards, all of the imagery was Smith’s. And since Waite was less interested in the Minor Arcana, which have 56 cards and are often more simplified graphics like playing cards, those ideas were “all hers,” according to Haskell. Smith completed 78 images at her studio in Chelsea, London, using ink and watercolor.

Two of Swords.  Smith herself came up with 56 cards of the Minor Arcana.

Two of Swords. Smith herself came up with 56 cards of the Minor Arcana. Credit: Courtesy of Yale University Library.

According to Haskell, Smith’s influences on the imagery included English artist Aubrey Beardsley’s condescending ink illustrations, luminous Pre-Raphaelite paintings, rich color-blocking of traditional Japanese woodcuts, and Art Nouveau decorative details.

She received a small fee for her efforts, but no copyright. Today it was quoted that the deck has sold over 100 million copies, but Haskell warns that it’s difficult to estimate its reach.

Career interrupted

Just three years after the publication of the Rider-Waite deck, Smith stopped making art, which was not a lucrative prospect for her. She staged her last art exhibition, converted to Catholicism and bought a house in Cornwall, inheriting some money after the death of a family member. She and her partner Lake moved into the house and made a living by renting it out to priests. Smith was also involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well as the Red Cross, her priorities seem to have changed.

“Because she stopped working… she stopped being part of the art world,” Haskell said.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the devastating economic impact closed galleries and shifted American art away from the decadent Art Nouveau style towards the “sustainability of everyday life,” Haskell said. These seismic shifts likely pushed Smith’s brief career into the footnotes of art history.

Smith was the first non-photographic artist to exhibit at the Alfred Stieglitz Gallery 291.

Smith was the first non-photographic artist to exhibit at the Alfred Stieglitz Gallery 291. Credit: Alfred Stiglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive; Yale Collection of American Literature

“The artists who worked, for the most part, either turned to more realistic styles or fell into obscurity,” she explained. Many of them “did not have a permanent gallery representation.”

Despite a surge of interest in recent years, Smith is not widely collected or exhibited today, but Haskell believes that all of her work is worth revisiting and that Smith was a symbol of the period to which she belonged.

“She represented this whole turn-of-the-century mood that was going deep into the unconscious and tapping into intuitive experiences,” she said. “Don’t get carried away with concrete, rational facts, but really explore these more emotional realms.”

At the Dawn of a New Era: American Modernism in the Early Twentieth Century“on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art until January 2023..

Top image: “Wave” by Pamela Colman Smith1903).

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