She’s the world’s most famous occult artist but her name is almost unknown.
Such is the enigma of Pamela Colman Smith (1878–1951), an early 20th-century artist, writer, and mystic. Smith created dreamy, Symbolist-inspired 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 a show.
She was also an intimate friend of Dracula writer Bram Stoker, poet William Butler Yeats, and the actress and artistic muse Ellen Terry, for whom Smith designed illustrations and stage sets.
However, Smith’s most lasting artistic contribution was undoubtedly her designs for the Rider-Waite tarot deck. Made in collaboration with mystic and scholar A.E. Waite, Smith created the Art-Nouveau-inspired imagery of mythical archetypes set against luminous monochromatic backgrounds. Released in 1909, the deck is now regarded as the standard set, with more than 100 million copies in circulation. Smith’s imagery has become synonymous with tarot itself.
And yet, for more than a century, Smith went wholly uncredited for her contribution. Her claim to the deck was only cemented by her iconic serpentine signature, a monogram she created while studying Japanese design, and which she embedded into the decoration for every Tarot card.