Pamela Colman SMith in front of pictures of the Rider Waite Smith Tarot cards

Pamela Colman Smith Tarot Masterpiece: The Untold Story

Pamela Colman Smith And The Rider Waite Smith Tarot

This is the fascinating story of Pamela Colman Smith and her Tarot masterpiece — The Rider Waite Smith Tarot Deck. Discover the untold story of a legendary woman nearly forgotten for her contribution to the RWS Tarot.

In the early 1900s, two extraordinary paths were destined to converge to create the most iconic Tarot deck in history. 

This is a story of destiny: how Pamela Colman Smith and Arthur Edward Waite collaborated to create a masterpiece, the Rider Waite Smith Tarot, the most recognized tarot deck in the world.

Pamela Colman Smith was an artist whose life was as colorful and exciting as her work. 

Smith’s Colorful Life

Born in London to American parents, her early years took her from New York to Jamaica. This shaped her unique artistic vision.

Returning to New York in 1893, she studied at Pratt Institute but left to follow her own path. 

After her mother’s passing, she returned to London, where she plunged into the literary and artistic scenes. Smith’s creative talents flourished. She illustrated verses for William Butler Yeats and published her works inspired by Jamaican folklore and English folk songs.

Pamela Colman Smith Illustration

Artist, Poet, Publisher

By 1901, her London studio became a cultural hub, hosting weekly salons filled with artists, actors, and writers like Bram Stoker and Yeats. She launched ‘The Green Sheaf,’ a journal showcasing her poems and art.

Pamela Colman Smith painting at Stieglitz gallery

In 1907, Smith had a successful and groundbreaking exhibition at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, displaying paintings inspired by her “synesthesia.” 

Listening to Bach, she saw colors and shapes and translated sound into visual art. Her art uniquely blended influences from London to Jamaica and beyond; her spiritual path was shaped by her upbringing in a mystical Christian tradition.

Pamela Colman Smith On Synesthesia

When Pamela Coleman Smith was attending the Pratt Institute of Art, she realized that she could visualize colors and forms while listening to music and transmit those visualizations into works of art.

Pamela Colman Smith Painting

She once explained…

“You ask me how these pictures have evolved. When I take a brush in hand, and the music begins, it is like unlocking the door to a beautiful country. There, stretched far away, are plains, mountains, and the billowy sea. Often, when hearing Bach, I hear bells ringing in the sky, rung by whirling cords held in the hands of maidens dressed in brown. There is a rare freshness in the air, like morning on a mountain-top, with opal-colored mists that chase each other fast across the scene. Chopin brings night; gardens where mystery and dread lurk under every bush, but joy and passion vibration within the air, and the cold moon bewitches all the scene.”

Journey Into the Golden Dawn

Her journey into the occult deepened in 1901 when Yeats, the Irish poet, writer, and mystic, introduced her to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

She joined this secret society’s enigmatic world. The mysterious group blended elements of mysticism, alchemy, astrology, and the Kabbalah into a comprehensive system of magic.

Its illustrious members included poets, writers, and mystics, like literary giant Yeats and the controversial Aleister Crowley. Their involvement added to the Order’s mystique and has left a remarkable legacy in the esoteric and literary worlds.

Hermetic order of the Golden Dawn logo

AE Waite crossed paths with Pamela Colman Smith in the corridors of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Waite was determined to create a Tarot deck rich in symbolic imagery that would redefine Tarot. 

He found his perfect counterpart in Pamela Colman Smith. Waite saw in Smith the ideal illustrator to realize his ambitious Tarot project. 

Waite believed she could translate the complex symbolism of the Tarot with her unique style, which was marked by bold colors, fluid lines, and powerful compositions.

Arthur Edward Waite, Poet, and Mystic

Born in America but making his mark in Britain, A.E. Waite was a poet and mystic. With an insatiable curiosity for all things occult, Waite penned numerous books on the subject.

Though deeply involved in secret orders like the Golden Dawn, Waite’s journey was marked by conflicts with contemporaries. He eventually left the Golden Dawn and founded the Fellowship of the Rosy Cross in 1915, focusing on Christian mysticism.

A.E. Waite

Despite lacking academic accolades and facing criticism from rivals like Aleister Crowley—who mockingly called him ‘Dead Waite’—his legacy thrives, most notably through the Rider-Waite Smith Tarot deck.

Was it destiny or the luck of the draw?

Waite laid out his vision with detailed instructions for Smith, emphasizing that she “follow very carefully the astrological significance of each suit as different zodiacal signs influence it”

The Hermit Tarot Card

As the one-time Grand Master of the Hermetic Order, he directed the themes of the Major Arcana, filled with allegorical imagery.

Smith, however, was given free rein over the Minor Arcana—wands, swords, cups, and pentacles. Breaking from tradition, she infused these cards with rich, detailed imagery, transforming the symbols into vibrant scenes.

Three of swords of the minor arcana by Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith Tarot and the Minor Arcana

She was the pioneer in illustrating the minor arcana. Before Smith, the Minor Arcana cards were basic, devoid of art and imagery. She added her twist by drawing detailed scenes on these cards. 

For example, the Ten of Cups card. Instead of just showing ten cups, Smith gives us a beautiful image of a family, all happy and celebrating under a rainbow. 

Ten of Cups Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

It’s not just a card anymore; it’s a story, which makes it easier to understand what the card is about.

Smith’s artwork lets you feel the card’s meaning on a gut level. You don’t need to memorize keywords; you can just look at the picture and feel what it says. 

Whether it’s a challenge, a celebration, or a moment of reflection, it’s in the images.

Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot Masterpiece – The Major Arcana

Moving to the iconic major arcana, Smith’s artistic genius truly shines, and her unique compositional style threads through each card, unifying the deck with a distinct visual language.

Analyzing the Rider Waite Smith Major Arcana

Let’s analyze a few key major arcana cards from the deck.

The Fool

The Fool Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

This card is about new beginnings, stepping into the unknown with a leap of faith. 

The dog symbolizes protection and the importance of having a loyal companion with good instincts on life’s journey.


Death Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

Often misconstrued as ominous, in truth, symbolizes the inevitability of transformation and renewal. 

The rising sun against the backdrop signifies rebirth following the end of a cycle. 

The Lovers

The Lovers Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

The Lovers card goes beyond romantic connections to depict the crucial choices that shape our lives. 

The angelic figure represents the harmony that comes from making decisions aligned with our true selves and the importance of authenticity in our moral dilemmas.

The Magician

The Magician Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

The Magician is standing before a table with a cup, pentacle, sword, and wand, representing the four suits of the Tarot. 

He holds a wand skyward in one hand while pointing to the ground with the other, embodying the phrase “As above, so below.” 

The Magician signifies manifestation, resourcefulness, and power.

The High Priestess

The High Priestess Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

 The High Priestess sits between black and white pillars, symbolizing duality. 

She holds a scroll labeled “Tora,” indicating divine knowledge. The crescent moon at her feet represents intuition. 

This card symbolizes mystery, intuition, and trust in one’s inner voice and subconscious.

The Sun

The Sun Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

The Sun features a bright sun shining in the sky with a child on horseback, surrounded by sunflowers. 

The child’s arms are open wide, and the sun radiates warmth and light. 

This card symbolizes joy, success, and vitality and suggests clarity, enthusiasm, and positivity.

The Wheel of Fortune

The Wheel of Fortune Tarot - Rider Waite Smith Deck

The Wheel of Fortune symbolizes the continuous cycle of life and the interplay of destiny and free will. 

It represents cycles and change, the only constant in life, and the wheel is always turning.

Some of the Tarot’s archetypes, like the Queen of Wands and the Fool, are believed to be modeled after Smith’s circle of friends.

Pamela Colman Smith’s Tarot Work Goes Unrecognized For Decades

Pamela Colman Smith completed the artwork for the deck in 1909 in just a few months. It was published that year as the Rider-Waite Tarot deck.

Yet, despite her profound impact on the world of tarot, Smith faced financial challenges throughout her life, receiving minimal compensation for her groundbreaking work and no formal copyright or credit for her contributions.

The lack of financial recognition for her artistry is a sad detail in the history of the deck’s publication.

After the deck’s release, Smith turned her attention to Irish mythology, culminating in illustrations for Bram Stoker’s final book. 

Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set

Smith Dedicates Herself To The Suffrage Cause

Eventually, she chose a life away from the public eye, converting to Catholicism and settling in England. She dedicated her energy to women’s suffrage and the Red Cross.

Smith passed away at 73, mostly forgotten and destitute. Her role in creating the deck went unrecognized for decades. 

Her distinctive serpentine monogram, added to every card and painting, secured her place in history.

Pamela Colman Smith Signature

While Pamela Colman Smith walked away from the art world, her tarot masterpieces have stood the test of time.

I have the Giant version of the RWS deck, see below, and love this big-sized version of the deck! It is great for altars and displays, too.

Giant Rider-Waite® Tarot Deck

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