Meet the Woman Behind Tarot’s Most Iconic Imagery

The Wave

Tarot has produced some of the most iconic and memorable imagery in art, and also some of the most reproduced art. It’s estimated the Rider-Waite deck, created by Arthur Edward Waite, has sold over 100 million copies worldwide since its creation in 1909. Bathed in mystery and fantasy, the art of tarot is meant to allow viewers to intuitively relate to cards and find inner guidance to questions they have about life. The art of tarot is meant to be easily understood, yet captures the sense of universal wonder that draws so many to practicing tarot. Composed of 78 unique images that tell the stories and life lessons found in tarot, the Rider-Waite deck can effectively be compared to a storybook.

 

Each suit in the deck (wands, pentacles, cups, and swords) offers its own advice and narrative. The major arcana, not belonging to a suit, tells of the fool’s journey to success and worldly realization. Effective storytelling through imagery is not an easy task to accomplish, but the Rider-Waite deck is able to do so through the work of one woman, Pamela Colman Smith.

Tarot
Taror

The British artist is the one responsible for the images seen in the Rider-Waite deck. Belonging to the Symbolism movement of art, she drew upon emotional connection and metaphor in images to convey a deeper meaning. Arthur Edward Waite is largely credited for the creation of the deck, but this minimizes the impressive efforts of Colman Smith. While he created the structure and premise for the deck, Waite was not an artist and commissioned Colman Smith to bring the visual component to life.

 

Colman Smith studied art at Pratt University under Arthur Wesley Dow, who also taught Georgia O’Keefe. She continued to develop her art style and connections, and eventually, a connection with writer W.B. Yeats earned her a membership to the Society of the Hermetic Students of the Golden Dawn.

 

This secret society for studying the occult introduced her to Waite, who went on to commission Colman Smith to create the art for his deck. Colman Smith created the images through a set of written guidance from Waite, describing the nature of each card and the intended use for it. She drew much of her inspiration from her social world. It’s believed that Victorian period actor Henry Irving, who’s rumored to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was captured as the Magician in the tarot deck.

This secret society for studying the occult introduced her to Waite, who went on to commission Colman Smith to create the art for his deck. Colman Smith created the images through a set of written guidance from Waite, describing the nature of each card and the intended use for it. She drew much of her inspiration from her social world. It’s believed that Victorian period actor Henry Irving, who’s rumored to have been the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was captured as the Magician in the tarot deck.

 

She claimed to have had synesthesia, a neurological condition that allows imagery and color to be experienced when she heard sounds. By drawing from her environment, Colman Smith was able to create imagery that anyone could connect with and relate to their own life. 

Pamela Colman Smith

Colman Smith completed the illustrations in about a six-month span, and it’s believed most were done with ink and pen.

 

Colman Smith’s approach to art was always centered around losing herself in the process of creating. Often playing music in the background to connect with her synesthesia, she enjoyed connecting with the worlds she saw in her head and bringing them to life on paper. Her attention to aesthetics is reminiscent of how art in the Renaissance was used as a way of conveying stories from mythology and the bible. Colman Smith sought to evoke connection and spiritual understanding through each of her brush strokes.

 

Outside of her work for Rider-Waite Tarot, Colman Smith produced other illustrations and published her writing as well. She completed work for Bram Stoker and held a solo exhibition of her watercolor works following the completion of the deck.

 

Colman Smith has long been minimized for her effort in creating the modern tarot, but many tarot scholars and art historians are advocating for referring to the deck as the Rider-Smith deck to give contribution to the woman who cemented the deck’s place in iconography.


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