Tarot Artists: Pamela Colman Smith and Rider-Waite deck

When Tarot enthusiasts consider the baseline deck that underlies a good majority of contemporary 20th and 21st century decks, the name that comes to mind is the Rider-Waite deck. Of course, there are older decks, from the decks of Marseilles to the Visconti-Sforza tarot, dating back to the fifteenth century. Those decks certainly served as templates for the Rider-Waite Tarot (RWT), but the RWT added many things. However, it excluded its most important element:

Pamela Colman Smith, the artist who brought the Tarot, especially the Minor Arcana, to life.

Colman Smith’s life reads like a who’s who of artists and occultists from the early 1900s.
She illustrated for and hobnobbed with the likes of Bram Stoker of Dracula fame, the actors Ellen Terry (who dubbed her “Pixie”) and Henry Irving (who Stoker is said to have modeled his nefarious vampire on), famed American photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (husband of the even more famous American painter, Georgia O’Keefe), and the noted poet William Butler Yeats. This is just the short list; Pixie knew people.

Outside of being a poet, the aforementioned W. B. Yeats also had an interest in the occult. He was a member of Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that mixed Egyptian, Alchemical, Kabalistic and Masonic elements into a new synthesis. The Golden Dawn was a veritable who’s who of the occult and included such figures such as “the world’s most evil man”, Aleister Crowley. Another member was Arthur Edward Waite, who Yeats introduced to Colman Smith.

A.E. Waite was an occult scholar, writing several books across a variety of topics, most still in print to this day. However, it was his decision to do something that would appeal to the art world that drew him to Coleman Smith. After the collapse of the Golden Dawn, he started his own offshoot, the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross, and Colman Smith followed.

By October of 1909, after six months of frenzied work, Colman Smith had finished 78 cards. While her work was based on notes made by Waite, he was not an artist; he essentially gave her rough descriptions of his intentions. While the patterns for the Major Arcana went back centuries, the cards of the Minor Arcana were like our modern playing cards: for example, the 10 of swords would picture ten swords. It was up to Colman Smith to bring those to life, which she obviously did.

10 swords
10 of Swords, RWT. Note Colman Smith’s stylized signature at the bottom right.

While she would have other projects, including several books on Jamaican folklore (for instance, Annancy Stories, illustrated tales of the trickster Spider), her most prominent work of art still remains the 78 cards that most cartomantic designers still look to as a source: the ineptly titled Rider-Waite deck (especially inept since Rider was merely the publisher).

This posted started with the following claim: the RWT added many things; however, it excluded its most important element:

Pamela Colman Smith.

And that why I refuse to call it the Rider-Waite. Drop the Rider, and add Colman Smith, because without her, the Tarot as we now know it just might not exist.

Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith, circa 1912

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