The Woman Who Invented the Minor Arcana

Reading a new article on Pamela Coleman Smith, the artist responsible for what is often called the “Waite deck” among Tarot users, this popped out at me:

Tarot has been around since early 15th-century Italy

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, spun off from traditional playing cards. The 78 cards are split into two groups called the Major and Minor Arcana. The Major Arcana features allegorical characters like the moon, sun, the fool and the lovers, while the Minor Arcana is divided into numbered and face cards in four suits: wands, swords, cups and pentacles. While prior decks were less pictorial in nature, Smith’s is filled with lush imagery that makes their interpretation easier for the reader.

Smith’s Two of Swords (Yale University Library).

“He was the one who instigated the deck, there’s no doubt about that,” [curator Barbara] Haskell[1]Smith’s work appears in At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth Century American Modernism at the Whitney Museum in New York.said. “And he probably had quite a bit of input into the Major Arcana.”

Although Waite may have directed the concepts for those 22 cards, the imagery was all Smith’s own. And since Waite was less interested in the Minor Arcana, which comprises 56 cards and were often more simplistic graphics like playing cards, those ideas were “totally hers,” according to Haskell. Smith completed the 78 images from her Chelsea studio in London, using ink and watercolor.

Smith’s influences for the imagery included the indulgent ink illustrations by English artist Aubrey Beardsley, the luminous paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites, the saturated color blocking of traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and the ornamental details of Art Nouveau, according to Haskell.

Had she received a percentage instead of a fixed fee for her work, she (or her heirs) might have  made quite a lot, but she took the ready money, as so often creators must.


1 Smith’s work appears in At the Dawn of a New Age: Early Twentieth Century American Modernism at the Whitney Museum in New York.

2 thoughts on “The Woman Who Invented the Minor Arcana

  1. Pitch313

    Creative art works by individual artists and writers have notable influence in a time of mass communications. Through style, symbolism, and making items that are intriguingly useful. And a common tendency to overlook the particulars of history. The Rider-Waite Tarot deck seems like it was “always there” for occulture. I never thought to look earlier for a Tarot deck.

  2. Kalinysta

    There have been a lot of re-imaginings of the Minor Arcana, but I think Smith’s interpretations are probably the best ones ever.

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