Kaplan (The Encyclopedia of Tarot, 2006, etc.), with Greer (Who Are You in the Tarot?, 2011) and debut authors O’Connor and Parsons, offer a retrospective on artist and author Pamela Colman Smith.
Best known for providing the illustrations for the widely used Rider-Waite tarot deck, Smith was a late-19th-century traveler and polymath who’s only now, with this book’s publication, receiving acknowledgment for her full body of work. Born in London, England, to American parents, Smith spent much of her childhood in St. Andrew’s Parish, Jamaica, which led her to eventually collect and publish two books of local folktales. She was educated at the Pratt Institute in New York City, beginning a career as an illustrator that included work in 20 books and numerous magazine articles. She was also a celebrated painter, with her art appearing in galleries throughout Europe and the United States. As a reaction to the male-dominated world of publishing—“She occasionally referred to publishers in letters as ‘pigs’ and vented her frustrations over failing to place work and not receiving royalties”—Smith struck out on her own as a female pioneer in magazine publishing. She also toured as a performer of folktales and designed theater sets and costumes. By bringing together the work from different media and periods of her life, the authors present her as the multifaceted creator that she was, complete with discussions of her influences, ideals, aesthetics, and passions. The book displays photographs, sketches, notebook pages, paintings, prints, poems, and folktales in full color along with lengthy essays that place the works in proper context.
The book is a collaboration by four tarot experts who are all well-acquainted with Smith’s oeuvre: Kaplan, who curates the bulk of Smith’s art, folktales, and poetry; O’Connor, who provides a detailed biography of Smith; Parsons, who offers insight and analysis on Smith’s work for the Rider-Waite deck, specifically; and Greer, who discusses Smith’s overall artistic legacy. The image of the artist that emerges in that of a woman at the crossroads of several of the most interesting creative communities of late-19th-century art: commercial illustration, the Celtic Revival, the spiritualist movement, and nascent children’s literature. From such time-honored source material, the authors argue, she fashioned a brand that was elegantly modern: “She pursued a career and did not marry or have children; instead, she surrounded herself with likeminded female friends....Pamela blended her interest in Irish and Jamaican folk tales into a personal mythology that celebrated freedom, fearlessness and independence of spirit.” The Rider-Waite tarot illustrations get their proper due, of course, but the book also succeeds in revealing Smith as an artist of larger significance. The artwork itself is beautifully rendered throughout, with many full-page, full-color prints for readers to explore. Tarot devotees will find much to appreciate, but so will fans of more famous illustrators, such as Howard Pyle, Arthur Rackham, and Maxfield Parrish. This work will hopefully help raise Smith’s profile as a true treasure of turn-of-the-century art.
A lovingly compiled art book full of wondrous images.