Pamela Colman Smith (16 February 1878 – 18 September 1951) was an artist, writer, publisher, poet, occultist and costume and stage designer. She was active from the mid-1890s to the late 1920s. Nicknamed Pixie, she is best known for illustrating the Rider-Waite deck for Arthur Waite. Some later versions of the deck have been renamed the Waite-Smith or the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, in honor of her contribution.
Note: Her name is also spelled Pamela Colman-Smith (hyphenated).
- Why is Pamela Colman-Smith Famous?
- Pamela’s Early Life and Career
- When Pamela met Arthur Waite, a Tarot Deck is Born
- Painting Career and Music Pictures
- Personal Life and Death
- Pamela’s Life Purpose and Numerology
Why is Pamela Colman-Smith Famous?
Who was Pamela Colman Smith and why is she famous?
Pamela secured her place in the history of Western esoterica, after she was commissioned to illustrate the Rider Tarot deck in 1909, by the mystic Arthur Waite. Over one hundred years later, it is still the most popular deck in the world. In fact, it is credited with bringing tarot out of the closet and into the mainstream.
Deeply embedded in the literary and arts world, over her lifetime, Pamela was the author of many works. She illustrated over 20 books, wrote many magazine articles and two collections of Jamaican folk tales. She co-edited A Broad Sheet between 1902 and 1903 with Irish poet W.B. Yeats (1865-1939), with whom she was good friends.
Green Sheaf Editor
Some of her early accomplishments include the illustrations for some of his volume of verses. Pamela edited the Green Sheaf from 1903 to 1904 by herself. After its demise, she ran Green Sheaf Press, a publishing house which focused particularly on her own works and female writers.
Her venture into publishing appears to have been a response to the male-dominated publishing establishment at the time. In letters, she repeatedly refers to the publishers as “pigs” and vents her frustrations about not receiving royalties she felt she was due.
Most Famous Work
Many of Pamela’s artistic works, including her famous tarot deck, ended up being works for hire. Or as she wrote to a friend “big projects for little money.”
Despite Pamela’s prolific output, she was only saved from oblivion – and one could say the same for Waite himself – by the Rider Waite Tarot deck. These painted cards have become her enduring legacy.
Pamela’s Early Life and Career
Born in London
Pamela was born in London to upper-class American parents in 1878. Samuel Colman, her maternal uncle, was a well-known publisher in the United States and noted landscape artist of the Hudson River School. Her grandmother was a respected writer of children’s books.
Pamela’s parents were followers of the mystical teachings of the Swedish philosopher and psychic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). She was bought up according to the Swedenborgian New Church, a mystical denomination of Christianity.
The church had become associated with occultism in the 19th century, and many followers blended the teachings with kabbala, alchemy and theosophy.
It was no surprise then, that Pamela began to engage with the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn as early as 1901. What better place to explore the mystical than a secret society dedicated to the occult, magic and the paranormal?
Moves to Jamaica
When Pamela was aged ten, her family moved to Jamaica, when her father took a job with the West India Improvement company. She became inspired by the folklores of Jamaica, and in time, her interest expanded to the folklore of America and Ireland. In addition, she was attracted by Judeo-Christian tradition of the Old and New testaments.
In 1893 at the aged 15, she traveled to New York and enrolled in the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. Her primary subject was illustration. At the institute, she studied drawing and painting and was widely regarded as a child prodigy. Pamela became one of the first students to have feature articles written about her in the Pratt Institute Monthly.
She was particularly impressed by Arthur Wesley Dow, a professor at the institute who was also influential on Georgia O’Keefe’s training.
Dow taught his students to avoid copying directly from nature. Instead he imparted the idea that paintings could be composed using shape, color, tones and lines. Pamela’s eyes were opened to the power of symbolism. This experience may even have encouraged the development of synesthesia, her ability to possibly ‘see’ in color.
She also studied Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, which, with their flat shapes and colors, influenced her design of the Rider Waite deck years later.
What seemed to set Pamela apart from other students was her originality and the uniqueness of her paintings. In January, 1898, Studio magazine described her paintings as “extremely interesting, though it is difficult to classify them.”
When Pamela met Arthur Waite, a Tarot Deck is Born
Arthur Edward Waite first conceived of the idea for a new tarot deck after reading some old occult manuscripts on the subject. He felt that the deck would be more meaningful if the forty minor arcana (pip cards) were given pictorial images.
Waite had met Pamela in 1901, when she joined the Isis-Urania Temple of the Golden Dawn. When he split from the temple in 1903 to create his Independent and Rectified Order of the Golden Dawn, she followed him into the new organization. It is possible that Waite’s plan to focus more on Christian-Judeo mysticism, rather than magic, was a deciding factor. Pamela was already interested in Catholicism and converted in 1911.
Waite later wrote in his autobiography Shadows of Life and Thought (1938), that Pamela was an “abnormally psychic artist.”
He continued, “It seemed to some of us in the circle that there was a draughtswoman among us who, under proper guidance, could produce a Tarot with an appeal in the world of art and a suggestion of significance behind the Symbols which would put on them another construction than had ever been dreamed by those who, through many generations, had produced and used them for mere divinatory purposes. My province was to see that the designs – especially those of the important Trumps Major – kept that in the hiddenness which belonged to certain Greater Mysteries.”
While Waite viewed Pamela as an abnormally psychic artist, he dismisses her in other parts of his biography as not being sufficiently educated in the occult and was in need of “guidance”. He claimed she had to be “spoon-fed carefully over the Priestess Card.”
Exactly how much Pamela had to be spoon-fed, is up for debate among tarot scholars. What is clear, is that Waite was much more interested in the design of the Major cards and gave Pamela more freedom with the Minor cards.
The Rider-Waite tarot derives its classic look from 15th century High Gothic woodcut playing cards, which favored strong black lines. It is also integrates the Japoiniste use of strong line with flat colors which Pamela studied at the Pratt Institute.
Painting Career and Music Pictures
The Green Sheaf Press
Pamela’s publishing company, the Green Sheaf Press, ran until about 1906. The company published a range of books, including novels, fairytales and poems. It is unclear if the company ever made any money, but it eventually ceased business due to financial issues.
After the demise of her publishing company, Pamela seems to have focused more on pursuing a fine arts career.
In the early 1900s, she regularly showed her paintings in New York at the gallery owned by the famous American photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). She enjoyed critical acclaim, particularly for her visionary drawings of mythical and otherworldly subjects. Smith was part of the Symbolist art movement that was prevalent in Europe at that time. Symbolist artists were noted for the sensual beauty of their work and for the portrayal of subjects based on dreams, mythology and imagination. As both an occultist and an artist Smith was at home in this style.
When she was not illustrating a particular story, she would fall into a light trance while listening to classical music and draw what she saw. The results became known as her ‘music pictures’. While listening to some music by Beethoven she painted a majestic queen in flowing robes standing on the sea carrying a small ball-like moon in her hands.
Her ‘music pictures’ were the main source of her acclaim at the time. It appears that Pamela may have had an ability called synesthesia. This is an ability to experience one of your senses through another. In Pamela’s case, she could ‘see’ music and put it into a picture. The ancient Greek’s called this ability ‘color-hearing’.
In an article in the San Jose Mercury News (1924), the journalist writes that Pamela’s music pictures were in great vogue. He wrote that they could be found “in many of the big houses in England.”
The famous composer Claude Debussy and friend of Pamela, said that her drawings to his music were his “dreams made visible.”
When Pamela created her music pictures, speed was the upmost importance. French critic, G.Jean-Aubry, watched Pamela in action. He wrote she would be “curled up in a corner at a concert with a sketch book on her knees, a sepia brush in her hand, listening to the work, following the rhythm, and smiling, working without haste, as if she had the time to put down her impressions in a few seconds.”
Another friend who witnessed Pamela at work said her drawings were “entirely subconscious.”
What seems apparent from her music paintings, which are suffused with symbolism and mysticism, is that Pamela had the ability to directly perceive the spirit world while she worked at her art.
Personal Life and Death
Much of Pamela’s private life remains a mystery. She never married or had children. While quite a few of her friends were notable lesbians, there is no evidence that she had any romantic nature, with anyone of any gender.
Pamela seemed to exist between cultures. Despite the fact her well-known relatives were white, Pamela was a woman of mysterious origins. Contemporaries said she seemed part Asian or part African or of some indeterminate ‘mixed blood’. She was frequently described as mixed race, Chinese, Japanese or primitive American. In her letters, she often recounts the difficulties people had in “placing” her.
Rather than fighting racism, Pamela seemed to fuel the ambiguity by cultivating a persona with her androgynous nickname Pixie. She dressed like a gypsy, or as we might say today, a hippy or new-ager.
John Yeats, the father of J.B.Yeats, once wrote on meeting Pamela, “She looks exactly like a Japanese. Nannie says this Japanese appearance comes from constantly drinking iced water. You at first think her rather elderly, you are surprised to find out that she is very young, quite a girl.” At the time of this meeting, Pamela was only 21 years old.
Poverty in Later Years
After the First World War, Smith received an inheritance from her uncle that allowed her to lease a house in an area popular with artists in Cornwall. She had converted to Catholicism in 1911, and ran a sort of vacation home for Catholic priests in a neighboring house. Her longtime friend Nora Lake, joined her to run the home. Her remaining years were lived in increasing financial difficulty. This was mainly because her style of writing and art had gone out of fashion after the war.
Adding to Pamela’s mystery, her place of burial is unmarked because she died a pauper, and is unrecorded because of a fire which destroyed the church records.
Pamela’s Life Purpose and Numerology
Based on Pamela’s date of birth, according to numerology her Life Path Number is 33/6. Your Life Path number says much about your life purpose. The No. 33/6 Life Path is known as the Master Psychic. Master number’s in numerology are meant to serve a bigger life purpose, they are supposed to deliver something important to the world. Pamela’s gift to the world, was the Rider Waite deck.
Interestingly, Arthur Waite is a No.6 Life Path. He is also a psychic, but not a master number like Pamela. His journey was more personal. So, despite the knowledge of the occult that Waite brought to their joint-project, it may well be that Pamela’s artistic vision, despite being the ‘junior’ in the relationship, was in fact the primary reason that the Rider Waite deck endures today.
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Tarot Cards Painted by Pamela Colman Smith
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The Life of Pamela Colman Smith