She is the most famous occult artist in the world but her name is almost unknown.
Such is the enigma of Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951), an early 20th century Art Deco artist, writer and mystic. Smith created symbolist-inspired dreamy watercolors that won her acclaim in her youth, including three successful exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s famed New York gallery, 291, where she was the first non-photographic artist to have an exhibition.
She was also a close friend of Dracula writer Bram Stoker, poet William Butler Yeats, and actress and art muse Ellen Terry, for whom Smith designed illustrations and stage sets.
However, Smith’s most enduring artistic contribution was undoubtedly his designs for the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Made in collaboration with mystic and scholar A. E. Waite, Smith created Art Deco-inspired images of mythical archetypes against bright monochrome backgrounds. Released in 1909, the game is now considered the standard game, with over 100 million copies in circulation. Smith’s imagery has become synonymous with tarot itself.
And yet, for more than a century, Smith went totally uncredited for her contribution. Her claim to the game was only cemented by her iconic serpentine signature, a monogram she created while studying Japanese design and incorporated into the decoration of each tarot card.
“The Tarot is a visual device – and yet the visual artist who composed them has been eclipsed by Waite, the scholar, and Rider, the maker,” said Micki Pellerano, artist, astrologer and scholar of occult history based in New York, “Academics, with all their inertia and corporatism, are somehow more palatable to the public and valuable to the marketplace than art and vision…little has changed.
But Smith slowly gained recognition. The “Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth-Century American Modernism” exhibit, currently on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art, features a complete vintage set of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck with attribution to Smith at the sides of The wave, a luminous watercolor and ink drawing from 1903 in the museum’s collection. The place of the artist in the history of art is however still in formation and his contributions are more complex than a simple history of rediscovery.
Pamela becomes Pixie
Born in London to upper-class American parents, Smith grew up in a sophisticated and cultured circle, spending her childhood in New York and then Jamaica, where she would be deeply shaped by that nation’s folk history. Smith returned to New York in 1893, enrolling at the Pratt Institute, although she would leave after two years to pursue her own interests, then returned to London after her mother’s death.
She was deeply involved in the literary world and her early accomplishments include illustrating a volume of verse by William Butler Yeats (1898), as well as publishing her own writings, Annance Storiesa collection of Jamaican folk tales, and Widdicombe Fairan illustrated version of a popular English folk tune.
By 1901 she had established a weekly salon in her studio and flat in London, and she had started her own journal, The green sheaf, which she edited as well as contributing her own poems and illustrations. She also devoted herself to miniature theater, building dazzling, tiny sets for toy performances.
The Annance Stories particularly gained Smith’s admirers and some notoriety. Smith played with gender conventions, granting the female characters in these stories more agency and sometimes making the genders of the characters ambiguous. She had also written these stories in Jamaican patois, which she had known since childhood – an unconventional decision at the time.
Smith was colloquially known as Pixie, a nickname given to her by Ellen Terry that captured something of her indefinable and mischievous spirit. Smith was often known for wearing flowing dresses and sometimes slacks, and her personal style welcomed all sorts of speculation. “She adopted native costumes and wore feathers in her hair and colored ribbons. It was almost like a self-constructed character that she adopted,” Barbara Haskell, curator of the Whitney show, explained in a phone interview.
His sexual orientation and ethnic makeup also sparked curiosity. She lived for many years with Nora Lake, her companion and business partner, with whom she may have shared a romantic relationship. Others have speculated that Smith was of mixed-race heritage, with an Anglo-American father and a mother of Jamaican or East Asian ancestry, although not much evidence exists to reach any conclusions. decisive on the matter. What was certain was that Smith was seen as “other” by those around her and that in turn inspired her approach to creating art.
First fame and acclaim
In 1907 Smith had his first exhibition at 291, with 72 watercolors. These works were partially inspired by Smith’s own synesthesia, in which she experienced visual sensations triggered by auditory impulses (her first synesthetic experience occurred while listening to Bach). She arranged her works for the show with openly musical references, such as overtures, sonatas and concertos.
“In the 19th century, there was an idea that art was an expression of the unconscious and that it would elicit unconscious, non-rational ways of thinking about the world,” Haskell said. “Smith was painting while listening to music as a way to release his unconscious, which would have been in line with Stieglitz’s assignment at that time.”
This first exhibition was a commercial success and Smith would have two more exhibitions at the gallery in the following years. Eleven of his unsold paintings and drawings remained in the collection of Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe. Eventually, however, Stieglitz would turn to a more masculine view of modernism, leaving Smith somewhat discouraged.
Embrace of the Occult
From the beginning of his life, Smith’s spiritual beliefs were oriented towards the esoteric and the arcane. She had been raised Swedenborgian, a mystical denomination of Christianity, and as early as 1901 began to engage with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that explored occult, metaphysical, and paranormal activity, which certainly influenced his art. production.
For Haskell, these influences were symptomatic of the times. “Smith represents a strain of artists from early American modernism who were dissatisfied with materialism and rationalism, but who were also dissatisfied with organized religion and therefore turned to more occult pursuits,” she explained. “Theosophy was so influential around the turn of the century and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was similar – a secret society that examined ancient texts, Kabbalah and tarot cards. It was predominant among women and I think to Agnes Pelton as a parallel.
Smith was eventually approached by Hermetic Order scholar A.E. Waite, who had ambitions to create a new version of the 78-card tarot deck, and who commissioned Smith to create the artwork.
Waite, a Grand Master of the Hermetic Order, offered a direction for his view of the order of the Major Arcana, which is characterized by allegorical figures such as the Fool and the Sun. The Minor Arcana, cards in four combinations of Wands, Swords, Cups, and Pentacles, were left entirely to Smith’s discretion, and she transformed these cards, which were traditionally just mere symbols, into lush scenes and loaded with images.
The deck is mythical in its scope, ranging from moments of elated royalty to playful delight, and Smith’s compositional signature dominates the cards: a solitary, mysterious medieval hero appears against a monochromatic, almost Byzantine background.
For Pellarano, Smith’s familiarity with the meaning of the tarot is evidenced by its detail. “She had a rare mastery of iconography and a deep understanding of it,” he said. “Her designs constantly reveal new layers of information. They encode so much meaning and evoke so much contemplation, yet are soft in their elegance and appeal. Haskell notes commonalities with the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti.” She was in England, and through the theater she was exposed to a lot of pre-Raphaelite art,” Haskell noted.
Some of the Tarot archetypes are thought to have been modeled by Smith’s friends – Ellen Terry’s daughter Edith Craig appears as the Queen of Wands and actor William Terriss as the Fool. Smith, who struggled financially throughout his life, would receive no royalties or credit for his contribution and only received a nominal commission.
A retreat in the dark
Following the game’s publication, Smith became increasingly interested in Irish mythology, and in 1911 she produced illustrations for Bram Stoker’s last book, Lair of the White Worm. But soon enough, Smith retired from the art world. That same year, she converted to Catholicism and, with a small inheritance, bought a house in Bude, England.
There, she would devote herself more fully to causes like women’s suffrage and the Red Cross. She would die at 73 in Bude, almost penniless. “It was her decision. She just left the art world,” Haskell said.
Still, Haskell thinks it’s time for Smith to join the modernist story. “The art, more than the words, presents the mood of the times, and Pamela Colman Smith’s work captures the essence of a feeling of that time,” she said. “On the one hand, people were excited about industrialization and it was the dominant mode, but there were also those who were very concerned that it was robbing people of a sense of spirituality and connection to their inner core. It certainly didn’t go away and we came back fully in such a moment.
“Smith’s works are even more resonant,” added Haskell, “showing art as a way to find a personalized spiritual connection with divinity in times of isolation.”
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