Best-known for her work illustrating the Rider-Waite tarot, Pamela Colman Smith was a synesthetic artist whose watercolors record the dramatic visions that unfurled before her as she listened to classical music. Each composer opened a doorway into a different realm. “Chopin brings the night,” she wrote, “gardens, mystery and dread hide under every bush, but joy and passion throb within the air,” whereas Wagner summoned maddening visions of “scratchy little brown fir-trees rising through a brown fog,” and “thick curtains of brown spiders’ webs” with “a sickly, sweet, evil smell clinging to everything.” “Sometimes they are so strange,” she said of her visions, “they shock me as they come.”
Mrs. Forbes-Semphill described her process in a 1927 article for The Illustrated London News:
“Sometimes the picture appears and grows in colour and form upon the paper as she draws, and she seems to just trace over it with her brush. At other times it is a living and moving picture that she sees before her in a frame…She does not seek to analyse these impressions at the time, as this would interfere with the subconscious action; she is absolutely sincere, and sets down only what she sees, holding her imagination well in check.”
These images, moreover, were deeply imbued with occult symbolism. Smith was a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn — an influential esoteric society whose membership included Bram Stoker, William Butler Yeats and Arthur Machen, to name a few. At the heart of their doctrines was the theory of correspondences, which, according to Melinda Boyd Parsons, “suggested that each aspect of creation as an imperfect reflection of a spiritual prototype…filtered through the ten Sephiroth or divine names. These, in turn, were manifestations of one ‘uncreated source.’ True reality lay only in this prototypical realm.”
They believed that it was this realm of pure archetype that Pamela Colman Smith was accessing through her art.