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In 500 Words - the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot Deck by Pamela Colman Smith

rider waite smith tarot card deck art history the high priestess the empress and strength Pamela Colman Smith iris28

You may not recognise her name at first, but you'll almost certainly recognise her art. The Rider–Waite–Smith Deck (also known as the Rider-Waite Deck) is a phenomenally popular deck for tarot card readers and collectors. Illustrated in extensive detail by Pamela Colman Smith, it is estimated that more than 100 million copies of the deck exist in more than 20 countries[1].

Pamela Colman Smith, also known as Pixie, was born in London in 1878. At the age of 15, Smith enrolled at the Pratt Institute and studied art under Arthur Wesley Dow, a painter, printmaker, photographer, and influential arts educator. She became an illustrator and theatrical designer and in 1901, she established a studio, holding a weekly open house for artists, actors, authors, and others involved in the arts.

Smith also wrote children’s books and illustrated Bram Stoker’s last novel. She was adopted by the Lyceum Theatre group led by actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving and she travelled the country with them, working on costumes and stage design. Writer and dramatist W.B. Yeats also introduced Smith to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secretive society committed to the study and practice of the occult, metaphysics, and the paranormal during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Here, she met Arthur Edward Waite, a scholarly mystic.

Smith supported the right for women to vote, and through the Suffrage Atelier, a collective of professional illustrators, she made and contributed artwork to further the cause of women's suffrage. In 1907, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, intrigued by Smith's synaesthesia which manifested in visions that came to her while listening to music, held an exhibition of Smith's paintings in New York, making Smith the first painter to have a show at what had been a gallery dedicated to the photographic avant-garde [2].

In 1909, Waite commissioned Smith to produce a tarot deck. Smith replied with a richly designed 78-card deck made up of vivid symbols, scenes, and figures. The execution and composition of the deck is a manifestation of Smith’s imaginative characterizations of the ecstatic, the fantastical and the macabre. The signs and symbols portrayed in the deck were believed to be channelled through ancient knowledge drawn out by divination processes, with many examples influenced by 19th-century occultists and teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn itself. Smith finished the deck in just six months between April and October. In a letter she wrote to Stieglitz she stated, “I’ve just finished a big job for very little cash!”[3]

Smith’s tarot deck was first published in 1909, but despite her early fame and tenacity, she slipped into obscurity, unable to find publishers for her later work. Smith’s deck became known as the Rider-Waite deck, excluding her name and minimizing her significant role. However, years after her death, many now refer to the famed tarot card set as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, and her innovative works continue to be consulted with reverence and studied with secular artistic admiration.



Visions and Prophesies - Time Life Books

Tarot Catalogue - Strangiato

Images from Wikimedia Commons


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Megan Kennedy is a writer and multidisciplinary artist based in Canberra, Australia. More of her work can be viewed on her website or Instagram.


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