Pamela Colman Smith: The Artist Behind the Iconic Rider-Waite Tarot Cards

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck is one of the most recognizable and widely used divination tools in the world. Its intricate illustrations and deep symbolism have captured the imaginations of countless seekers, mystics, and artists. But who was the creative mind behind this iconic deck? Surprisingly, it was the artist Pamela Colman Smith, a woman whose life and career have largely been overlooked by history. In this article, we will delve into the life and work of Colman Smith, exploring her early years, her artistic endeavors, and the creation of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck. Join us as we uncover the fascinating story of this talented and enigmatic artist.

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Early Life and Career

Early Life And Career
As we dive into the early life and career of Pamela Colman Smith, the artist behind the famous Rider-Waite Tarot Deck, it becomes clear that her artistic journey was not always an easy one. Born to Jamaican parents in England in 1878, Smith faced a multitude of challenges throughout her life–including financial struggles and pervasive racism–that made it difficult for her to gain recognition as an artist. Nevertheless, she persisted in her pursuit of artistic expression and eventually became the mind behind one of the most beloved and widely-used Tarot decks in the world. Let’s take a closer look at how she got to that point.

Childhood and Education

Born on February 16, 1878, Pamela Colman Smith spent most of her childhood years in Jamaica with her parents. She was the daughter of an American father who worked as an importer and a Jamaican mother who was part of the local merchant class. When Smith was a child, she was diagnosed with scarlet fever, which temporarily blinded her. During her recovery period, she discovered her love for drawing and began sketching everything she could see when her vision returned.

At the age of ten, Smith’s family moved to London, where she received her formal education. She was enrolled at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, where she studied painting, drawing, and graphic design. After leaving the Pratt Institute, Smith continued her art education at the Slade School of Fine Art in London.

Despite her artistic talent, Smith struggled to gain recognition as a woman of color in a male-dominated field. She eventually turned her attention to theatrical design, working as a costume designer for various theater companies in London and New York.

Event Details
Birth Pamela Colman Smith was born on February 16, 1878, in Pimlico, London.
Early Education Smith began drawing after recovering from scarlet fever as a child. She later attended the Pratt Institute in New York and the Slade School of Fine Art in London.
Career Smith struggled to gain recognition in the art world as a woman of color and turned to theatrical design, working as a costume designer for various theater companies.

Smith’s talent for art eventually caught the attention of Arthur Edward Waite, a prominent member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society devoted to the study of the occult and metaphysics. Waite commissioned Smith to illustrate his tarot deck, which would later become known as the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck.

The Quest for Artistic Recognition

Pamela Colman Smith was a talented artist who struggled for recognition in her early career. Despite her natural talent and an early start in the art world, Smith found it challenging to gain recognition as a woman of color in the early 1900s.

Smith’s artistic capabilities were evident from a young age. She was born to wealthy Anglo-Jamaican parents in London on February 16, 1878. Smith spent her childhood traveling between Jamaica and the UK, but it was during her time in Jamaica that she first showed an interest in art.

Smith’s mother recognized her talent and encouraged her artistic pursuits. She took Smith to art galleries and museums, and Smith was soon producing her own artwork. Smith’s family moved back to London when she was nine years old, where she continued to hone her craft. She briefly attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York, but left after a year, unhappy with the school’s rigid approach to art.

Despite her early successes, Smith encountered difficulty in establishing herself in the art world. As a woman of mixed race, she faced discrimination and prejudice. She also struggled with finances, often living hand-to-mouth and taking on odd jobs to make ends meet.

However, Smith was undeterred in her pursuit of artistic recognition. She continued to produce artwork, and in 1899, she began exhibiting her pieces at the Royal Academy of Arts. Her work at this exhibition was well-received, and she was able to establish herself in the art world.

Smith was also involved in the theater, writing plays and designing sets and costumes. She worked with famous playwrights such as WB Yeats and Ellen Terry, further cementing her reputation as a talented artist. However, it wasn’t until her collaboration with Arthur Edward Waite on the iconic Rider-Waite Tarot deck that Smith’s true fame was solidified.

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Decipher the Riddles of Your Dreams: Select a Tarot Card and Unveil Their Hidden Meanings!
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The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck is without a doubt one of the most recognizable and influential tarot decks in the world. Its stunning imagery and symbolism have captivated tarot enthusiasts and scholars for over a century. What makes this deck so special? Who was the artist behind it? And what are the deeper meanings in the cards? We’ll explore all these questions to gain a better understanding of this iconic deck and its creator. While other well-known decks like the Marseille Tarot by Alliette have their own significance in the world of tarot, the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck stands out for its unique artwork and intricate symbolism. Let’s delve into the story of the artist behind this remarkable deck – Pamela Colman Smith.

The Creation Process

The creation process of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck was a collaborative effort between Arthur Edward Waite and Pamela Colman Smith. Waite, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society that practiced ritual magic, had a clear vision for the deck’s symbolism and instructed Smith on what images to create for each card.

Smith, a talented artist and illustrator, worked tirelessly to bring Waite’s vision to life. She created each card by hand using the process of watercolor painting, a technique that was popular at the time. The cards were designed to be easy to understand and relatable to the general public, which was a departure from the more esoteric and complex tarot decks of the past.

One of the most interesting aspects of the creation process was the collaboration between Waite and Smith. According to some interpretations, Waite provided the intellectual and esoteric framework for the deck, while Smith contributed the artistic vision and emotional depth. This partnership resulted in a deck that is both aesthetically pleasing and rich with symbolism and meaning.

Despite the collaboration, there is some debate over who really deserves credit for the creation of the deck. While Waite is often credited with being the deck’s creator, some argue that Smith’s contributions were just as important and that she should be given equal credit. Regardless of who should be credited, there is no denying that the deck has had a significant impact on the world of tarot and has become one of the most well-known and highly regarded decks in history.

The creation process of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck was a unique and fascinating collaboration between two talented individuals with very different backgrounds and skill sets. The result was a deck that is both beautiful and full of meaning, and it continues to be studied and used by tarot enthusiasts around the world.

The Deeper Meanings in the Cards

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck is not only famous for its iconic illustrations, but also for the deeper meanings behind each card. Pamela Colman Smith’s artistic skills were matched equally by her knowledge of the occult, and this is reflected in the symbolism incorporated into the cards.

Major Arcana: These cards represent major life events and spiritual lessons. One of the most recognizable cards is The Fool, who represents innocence and new beginnings. The Magician card represents manifestation and the power of focus, while The High Priestess symbolizes intuition and the unconscious mind. The Death card does not necessarily mean physical death, but rather represents transformation and new beginnings.

Minor Arcana: These cards represent more everyday events and experiences. The suit of Wands represents creativity and inspiration, while the suit of Cups represents emotions and relationships. The suit of Swords represents conflict and decision-making, while the suit of Pentacles represents material possessions and the physical world.

It’s important to note that these meanings are not set in stone and can vary depending on the interpretation of the reader. The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck has become so popular because of its versatility and the ability of each card to tap into different aspects of the human experience.

Other notable contributions to the interpretation of tarot include those of Rachel Pollack and Mary Greer, who have written extensively on the subject. Additionally, Alejandro Jodorowsky has brought new perspectives to tarot through his films and artistic collaborations. Jean-Baptiste Alliette’s Marseille Tarot also holds significant historical significance as one of the earliest recorded tarot decks.

The Rider-Waite Tarot Deck is not only a work of art but a tool for introspection and self-reflection. Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations have stood the test of time, continuing to inspire and guide seekers of all backgrounds and experiences.

Later Life and Legacy

As we delve into Pamela Colman Smith’s later life and legacy, it is hard not to feel a sense of curiosity and fascination about the woman behind the iconic Rider-Waite Tarot deck. Many tarot enthusiasts and art aficionados alike are left wondering what path her life took after the creation of one of the most influential tarot decks of all time. Though not without its challenges, Smith’s later life was marked by a renewed interest in spiritualism and a growing appreciation for her contributions to the world of art and symbolism. It is a story that deserves to be told and remembered alongside other notable individuals in the history of tarot, such as Arthur Waite and Pamela Colman Smith, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Jean-Baptiste Alliette, and Rachel Pollack and Mary Greer.

Reconnecting with Spiritualism

After the initial success of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, Pamela Colman Smith became increasingly interested in spiritualism, a movement that had gained popularity in Europe and the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Smith had always been fascinated with mysticism and the supernatural, and her experiences with spiritualism only added to this fascination.

Attending Spiritualist Meetings
Smith began attending spiritualist meetings, where she claimed to communicate with the spirits of her deceased relatives. These experiences had a profound impact on her art, and she began to explore more mystical and esoteric themes in her work.

A Return to Illustration
After reconnecting with spiritualism, Pamela Colman Smith also returned to her first love: illustration. She illustrated several books on spiritualism, including “The Tarot of the Bohemians” and “The Book of the Dead”. Her illustrations for these books were gorgeous, detailed, and heavily symbolic, reflecting her deep interest in the spiritual world.

A Mystical Outlook
One of the most striking aspects of Smith’s later work is its mystical, almost otherworldly quality. She often depicted spiritual beings, such as angels and demons, as well as esoteric symbols like the ouroboros (a serpent eating its own tail) and the ankh (an ancient Egyptian symbol for life). Her art conveyed a sense of the profound mysteries of life, death, and the afterlife, and her spirituality was an essential part of her creative vision.

A Lasting Legacy
Despite her relatively brief career as an artist, Pamela Colman Smith had a lasting impact on the world of tarot and mysticism. The Rider-Waite Tarot deck, which she illustrated and helped to create, is still one of the most popular and widely used decks today. Her art also continues to inspire those interested in spiritualism, mysticism, and the occult. As a woman who defied convention in both her personal and professional life, she remains an important figure in the history of art and spirituality, and her legacy continues to resonate today.

The Re-Printing of the Deck and Its Enduring Popularity

After Pamela Colman Smith’s death in 1951, many believed that her work would be forgotten. However, her art and particularly her Rider-Waite Tarot deck continued to gain popularity in the following decades. In fact, the Rider-Waite Tarot deck has remained one of the most popular and widely used decks in the world today.

Reprinted Editions

In 1971, a facsimile edition of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck was published by University Books, which sparked renewed interest and enthusiasm for the famed deck. This re-publication also helped to renew interest in Pamela Colman Smith’s life and career.

Since then, several other publishers have produced reprints of the Rider-Waite Tarot deck, including US Games Systems, Inc. and Lo Scarabeo in Italy. These editions often feature updated and revised guidebooks, as well as new artistic interpretations of the cards.

Modern Interpretations

Pamela Colman Smith’s legacy also lives on in the many contemporary tarot decks that have been inspired by her work. Artists and illustrators today continue to incorporate elements of her distinctive style, including her use of vibrant color, intricate patterns, and her emotive and expressive figures, into their own interpretations of tarot imagery.

The enduring popularity of Pamela Colman Smith’s work is a testament to her talent, creativity and the profound impact that her art has had on the world of tarot and divination. It is also a tribute to the continuing fascination with, and belief in, the magic and mystery of the tarot.


After delving into the life and work of Pamela Colman Smith, it is impossible not to be struck by her remarkable accomplishments and influence on art and spirituality. Her immense talent and creativity allowed her to blaze a trail for women in art, while her spiritual insights gave rise to one of the most enduring and beloved tarot decks of all time.

Despite facing various challenges and setbacks throughout her life, Pamela remained dedicated to her craft and remained committed to exploring the depths of her creativity. Her journey serves as a testament to the power of perseverance, passion, and belief in one’s own abilities.

Today, her Rider-Waite tarot deck remains as popular as ever, with its intricate and symbolic imagery captivating new generations of seekers and spiritual enthusiasts. Its enduring legacy is a true testament to the insight, talent, and dedication of Pamela Colman Smith, an artist whose influence is sure to be felt for many years to come.

In the end, we can only thank Pamela for her pioneering spirit, her astonishing creativity, and her unwavering commitment to capturing the essence of the spiritual through her art. We can only hope that her legacy will continue to inspire and captivate for generations to come, providing a source of insight, guidance, and inspiration for all those who seek to explore the depths of their own spirituality.

Frequently Asked Questions

Who was Pamela Colman Smith?

Pamela Colman Smith was an artist, illustrator and writer born in England in 1878.

What is Pamela Colman Smith best known for?

Pamela Colman Smith is best known for creating the illustrations for the Rider-Waite tarot deck.

What is the Rider-Waite tarot deck?

The Rider-Waite tarot deck is a set of 78 cards used for divination and fortune-telling.

How did Pamela Colman Smith create the illustrations for the Rider-Waite deck?

Pamela Colman Smith created the illustrations for the Rider-Waite deck through a combination of watercolor painting and pen-and-ink drawing.

What was Pamela Colman Smith’s relationship with Arthur Edward Waite, the creator of the Rider-Waite deck?

Pamela Colman Smith had a professional relationship with Arthur Edward Waite as the illustrator for the Rider-Waite deck, but it is unclear if they were personally acquainted.

What themes and symbols are present in the Rider-Waite deck illustrations?

The Rider-Waite deck illustrations feature a variety of mystical, mythological, and spiritual symbols, including the four elements, astrology, numerology, and Christian iconography.

What impact has the Rider-Waite deck had on the world of tarot reading?

The Rider-Waite deck is one of the most popular and widely-recognized tarot decks, and its influence can be felt in many modern tarot decks and interpretations.

Did Pamela Colman Smith produce other works beyond the Rider-Waite tarot deck illustrations?

Yes, Pamela Colman Smith was a prolific artist and author who produced many other works throughout her lifetime, including books, plays, and illustrations.

What is spiritualism, and how did it connect with Pamela Colman Smith’s work?

Spiritualism is a religious movement characterized by the belief that the spirits of the dead can communicate with the living. Pamela Colman Smith was a spiritualist who believed in the existence of an afterlife and often incorporated spiritualist themes into her work.

Why has Pamela Colman Smith’s legacy endured for so long?

Pamela Colman Smith’s illustrations for the Rider-Waite tarot deck are considered to be some of the most iconic and recognizable in the history of tarot, and her fusion of mystical and artistic themes continues to inspire and captivate people around the world.


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