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The Woman Behind The World’s Most Famous Tarot Deck Was Almost Lost To History

Written by Jacqui Palumbo, CNN

Keep a question in your mind, shuffle, select your cards and envision your future. For centuries, people from all walks of life have turned to tarot to divine what lies ahead and reach a higher level of self-understanding.

The cards’ enigmatic symbols have become culturally ingrained in music, art and film, but the woman who inked and painted the illustrations for today’s most widely used deck of cards – the 1909 Rider-Waite deck, originally published by Rider & Co. – has fallen into obscurity, eclipsed by the man who commissioned it, Arthur Edward Waite.

Now, more than 70 years after her death, designer Pamela Colman Smith has been included in a new exhibition at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art highlighting many of the underrated artists of early 20th-century American modernism, including more famous names like Georgia O’ Keeffe and Louise Nevelson.

Eight cards from a vintage deck of the Rider-Waite-Smith game, printed between 1920 and 1930. Credit: Frances Mulhall Achilles Library; Whitney Museum of American Art

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

A full vintage set of Smith’s tarot cards are featured in Whitney’s show, along with one of her 1903 watercolor and ink dream paintings titled “The Wave,” which is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Smith was a fascinating but mysterious figure – a mystic who was part of the secret occultist society the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, who borrowed ideas from Kabbalah and Freemasonry for his own centered spiritual belief system. on magic and metaphysics. Born to American parents in London, Smith spent a period of her childhood in Jamaica and did her hair in West Indian fashion, leading to conflicting reports as to whether or not she was of mixed race. She was also cast as a queer cult icon because she shared a home with a girlfriend and business partner named Nora Lake for many years – although Haskell says it’s “unclear” whether their relationship was romantic.

The Woman Behind The World’s Most Famous Tarot Deck Was Almost Lost To History

Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the most famous tarot deck, but her contributions were overshadowed by AE Waite, who commissioned her. Credit: Public domain

In Smith’s work, “she was drawn to a sort of mystical view of the world,” Haskell said in a phone interview. She listened to music to unlock her subconscious and reportedly had synesthesia – a neurological condition that causes the person to see shapes or colors when hearing sounds. Smith worked in the Symbolist tradition – which favored everyday metaphorical and emotional imagery – at a time when the United States was undergoing massive industrial and societal change just after the turn of the 20th century.

“His fine art represents this time when people find comfort 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 hers’

When Waite approached Smith to illustrate her vision for a reimagined tarot deck, she was 31 and had exhibited her paintings in the New York gallery of famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was a major supporter of her work. Waite, like Smith, was a member of the Hermetic Order but had reached the level of Grand Master. He had studied ancient texts extensively and written new ones on the subject of mysticism, and had ideas about the concept of the new cards and how to order them.

The Woman Behind The World’s Most Famous Tarot Deck Was Almost Lost To History

“The Star”, Major Arcana. Some of Smith’s original tarot artwork was in the collection of the Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archives, now part of the Yale Library. Credit: Courtesy of Yale University Library

Tarot has been around since the early 15th century in Italy, derived from traditional playing cards. The 78 cards are divided into two groups called the major and minor arcana. The Major Arcana feature allegorical characters like the Moon, Sun, The Fool, and the Lovers, while the Minor Arcana are divided into numbered and face cards in four suits: Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles. While previous games were less pictorial in nature, Smith’s is filled with lush imagery that makes it easier for the reader to interpret them.

“He started the game, there’s no doubt about it,” Haskell said. “And he probably had quite a bit of influence on the Major Arcana.”

Although Waite may have directed the concepts for these 22 cards, the images all belonged to Smith. And since Waite was less interested in the Minor Arcana, which comprise 56 cards and were often more simplistic graphics like playing cards, those ideas were “totally hers,” according to Haskell. Smith produced the 78 images from his Chelsea studio in London, using ink and watercolour.

The Woman Behind The World’s Most Famous Tarot Deck Was Almost Lost To History

The Two of Swords. Smith conceptualized the 56 Minor Arcana cards entirely on her own. Credit: Courtesy of Yale University Library

Smith’s influences for imagery included the indulgent ink illustrations of English artist Aubrey Beardsley, the luminous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the saturated color blocking of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and the ornamental detailing of Art Nouveau. , according to Haskell.

For her efforts, she received a small remuneration, but not the royalties. Today it was quoted that over 100 million copies of the game have been sold, but Haskell warns that it is difficult to estimate its reach.

A cut short career

Only three years after the Rider-Waite game was published, Smith quit making art, which had not been a lucrative prospect for her. She mounted her last art exhibition, converted to Catholicism and bought a house in Cornwall after inheriting money from 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 also became involved in the women’s suffrage movement as well as the Red Cross, as her priorities apparently changed.

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

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the devastating economic effects shuttered galleries and shifted American art from the decadent style of Art Nouveau to “the resilience of everyday life,” Haskell said. These seismic shifts likely relegated Smith’s short career to the footnotes of art history.

The Woman Behind The World’s Most Famous Tarot Deck Was Almost Lost To History

Smith was the first non-photographer artist to be exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz’s Gallery 291. Credit: Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archives; Yale Collection of American Literature

“The artists who were working, for the most part, either turned to more realistic styles or fell into oblivion,” she explained. Many of them “did not have sustained gallery representation”.

Despite a resurgence of interest in recent years, Smith is not widely collected or exhibited today, but Haskell believes that all of her output deserves to be revisited and that Smith was emblematic of the period to which she belonged.

“She represented this whole turn-of-the-century mood of delving into the unconscious and tapping into intuitive experience,” she said. “To not get so involved in hard, rational facts, but to really explore those more emotional areas.”

Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art until January 2023.

Top image: “The Wave”, by Pamela Colman Smith (1903).

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