The woman behind the world’s most famous tarot deck was almost lost in history

Wrote Jackie Palumbo, CNN

Keep a question in mind, shuffle, select your cards and see your future. Over the centuries, people from all walks of life have become tarotists who can stay ahead and reach higher levels of self-understanding.

Mysterious card symbols have become culturally embedded in music, art and film, but the woman who painted the most widely used card sets in ink today – the Rider-Wet Deck, since 1909. Originally published by Ryder & Co. – ambiguous, printed by Arthur Edward Waite, who commissioned it.

Now, more than 70 years after her death, creator Pamela Coleman Smith is included in a new exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, featuring much less acclaimed artists of early 20th century American modernity, in addition to famous names like Georgia O. ‘Kif and Lewis Newellson.

Eight cards from a vintage set on the Ryder-Wet-Smith deck printed between 1920 and 1930.

Eight cards from a vintage set on the Ryder-Wet-Smith deck printed between 1920 and 1930. Credit: Francis Mulhal Achilles Library; The Whitney Museum of American Art

According to Barbara Haskell, the show’s curator, Smith, like many other female artists of the era, was a victim of “the polarization of women’s achievement.”

A complete vintage set of Smith’s tarot cards has been featured on the Whitney Show, along with a dreamy watercolor and ink work entitled “The Wave” from 1903, which is now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

Smith was an interesting but mysterious figure – a mystic who was part of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret magical society that borrowed ideas from Kabbalah and Freemasonry for its own spiritual belief system centered on magic and metaphysics. Born in London to American parents, Smith spent his childhood in Jamaica and styled himself in West Indies fashion, leading to controversial reports about whether he was a Biral. He has also been cast as a cult well icon because he has shared a home with a female companion and business partner named Nora Lake over the years – although Haskell said it was “unclear” whether their relationship was romantic.

Pamela Coleman Smith portrayed the most famous tarot deck, but her contribution was accepted by AE Waite, who commissioned her.

Pamela Coleman Smith portrayed the most famous tarot deck, but her contribution was accepted by AE Waite, who commissioned her. Credit: Open area

In Smith’s work, “he was attracted to a kind of mystical view of the world,” Haskell said in a phone interview. He listens to music to unlock his subconscious mind, and is said to have had synesthesia – a nervous state that causes a person to see shape or color when he hears sound. Smith was working on the symbolist tradition – which preferred metaphorical and emotional imagery over everyday – at a time when the United States was undergoing major industrial and social change just after the beginning of the 20th century.

“His fine art represents a moment in which people find solace in their more spiritual anxieties, especially at a time when the art seems to be creating a sense of division and isolation,” Haskell explained.

‘Completely his’

When Wett approached Smith to illustrate his vision for a redesigned tarot deck, he was 31 years old and exhibited his paintings at the New York Gallery of the famous photographer Alfred Stiglitz, who was an important supporter of his work. Wet, like Smith, was a member of the Hermetic Order but rose to the rank of Grandmaster. He studied ancient texts extensively and wrote new ones on mysticism and had ideas about new cards and how they should be ordered.

"They," From Major Arcana.  Some of Smith's original tarot works were in the Alfred Stiglitz / Georgia O'Keefe Archive, now part of the Yale Library.

“The Star,” from Major Arcana. Some of Smith’s original tarot works were in the Alfred Stiglitz / Georgia O’Keefe Archive, now part of the Yale Library. Credit: Courtesy Yale University Library

Tarot has been around in Italy since the early 15th century, out of the traditional card. The 78 cards are divided into two groups called Major and Minor Arcana. Major Arcana has metaphorical characters such as the moon, sun, fools, and lovers, whereas Minor Arcana is numbered into four suits and divided into face cards: wands, swords, cups, and pentacles. Although the earlier decks were less pictorial in nature, Smith’s paintings are full of captivating images that make it easier for the reader to interpret them.

“He was the one who persuaded Deck, no doubt about it,” Haskell said. “And he probably had quite a bit of input in Major Arcana.”

Although Wet can point to the concepts of those 22 cards, the images are all Smith’s own. And since Wet Minor was less interested in Arcana, which has 56 cards and often had simpler graphics like playing cards, Haskell said the ideas were “completely his.” Smith has completed 78 paintings using ink and watercolors from his Chelsea studio in London.

The Two of Swords.  Smith made 56 cards of Minor Arcana completely his own.

The Two of Swords. Smith made 56 cards of Minor Arcana completely his own. Credit: Courtesy Yale University Library

Smith’s influences for painting included the indomitable ink paintings of English artist Aubrey Beardsley, illuminated paintings of pre-Raphaelites, saturated color blocking of traditional Japanese wood block prints, and art nouveau, according to Haskell.

For his efforts, he received a small fee, but not copyright. Today, it is quoted that more than 100 million copies of the deck have been sold, but Haskell warns that it is difficult to estimate its reach.

A career is short

Just three years after the Rider-Wet Deck was published, Smith stopped making art, which was not a profitable prospect for him. He mounted his last art show, converted to Catholicism, and bought a house in Cornwall with some money inherited from the death of a family member. He and his companions moved to Lake Home and made a living by renting to priests. As Smith was involved with the women’s suffrage movement as well as the Red Cross, her priorities apparently changed.

“Because he stopped working … he stopped appearing in the art world,” Haskell said.

When the Great Depression hit in 1929, the devastating economic impact closed the galleries and moved American art from the decaying style of Art Nouveau to “the elasticity of everyday life.” These seismic changes probably put Smith’s short career in the footsteps of industrial history.

Smith was the first non-photographic artist to be exhibited at Alfred Stiglitz Gallery 291.

Smith is the first non-photographic artist to appear in Alfred Stiglitz’s Gallery 291. Credit: Alfred Stiglitz / Georgia O’Keefe Archive; The Yale Collection of American Literature

“The artists that were working, for the most part, either turned into more realistic styles or fell into obscurity,” he explained. Many of them “had no permanent gallery representation.”

Despite growing interest in recent years, Smith is not widely collected or exhibited today, but Haskell believes his entire output deserves reconsideration, and was a symbol of the time Smith was in.

“He represented this whole mood at the turn of the century, which was to enter into the unconscious and tap into the intuitive experience,” he said. “Concrete, not so much for engaging in logical information, but really for exploring these more sensitive states.”

The dawn of a new era: American modernism in the early twentieth century“Will be on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art until January 2023.”.

Top Image: By “The Wave.” Pamela Coleman Smith (1903).

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