Georgia O’Keeffe and the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck
by David Coale
The “Rider-Waite” design, released in 1910, standardized the imagery of Tarot cards and is still popular today. Its illustrator, Pamela Colman Smith, was close to New York gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz in the early 1900s, and sent him a deck shortly before its public release. Six years later, Stieglitz began his well-known relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe. Some cards in the Rider-Waite deck address themes that also appear in O’Keeffe’s work, using similar imagery to do so. That common ground illustrates the influence of modernist design on both O’Keeffe and Smith, as well as the universality of the symbols in their work. Coupled with their common link to Stieglitz, it also raises the intriguing – although likely unanswerable – question whether O’Keeffe saw and was directly influenced by Colman Smith’s art in the Rider-Waite deck.
Background – the Tarot
“Tarot” refers to a deck of cards used
The documented history of the modern Tarot deck extends to the 1400s,2
extensive speculation about intellectual roots extending to Ancient Egypt.3
A Tarot deck has two parts: a
“Minor Arcana” composed of four suits of numbered cards, much like a typical deck
of playing cards, and a “Major Arcana” consisting of twenty-two images. A Tarot
reader draws cards from a deck, places them in a pre-arranged pattern, and
offers insights based on the images on the selected cards and their
relationships to each other.4
The person seeking insight from the reader is generally called a “querent.”5
In the early twentieth century, the
“Rider-Waite” design standardized the imagery of a Tarot deck and soon became the
most popular deck worldwide.6
major innovation of the deck was to put pictures on all the cards, not just the
Major Arcana and the higher-ranking Minor Arcana cards.7
Pamela Colman Smith
This design resulted from a
collaboration of two individuals – A.E. Waite, a former leader in the occult
order called the “Golden Dawn,” and Pamela Coleman Smith (fig. 1)
, a popular
painter of the time. Waite contributed his knowledge of the cards’ history and
his analysis of the appropriate symbolism for them, while Smith contributed her
artistic skills and practical experience as an illustrator.8
Smith, born in 1878, lived in New
York and London as a young adult.9
became close with Alfred Stieglitz, who in 1907 featured Smith’s paintings in
his New York gallery, in its first exhibition of artwork other than
By 1909-10, their relationship cooled as Stieglitz developed connections with
other talented modernists, and not long afterwards she moved to England
Notably, Smith wrote Stieglitz about her work on the Rider-Waite deck on November
19, 1909, saying: “I will send you a pack – (printed in colour by lithography)
– (probably very badly!) as soon as they are ready – by December 1 – . . . "12
Stieglitz began his famous relationship
with Georgia O’Keeffe in 1916. While Smith had permanently left New York by
then, she left a lasting artistic influence on Stieglitz through her depictions
of “the feminine as mystic, child, and primitive.”13
This legacy, combined with that of other woman modernists who worked with
Stieglitz before he met O’Keeffe, is considered to “[i]n a large sense . . .
collectively ‘made’ the image O’Keeffe later took on.”14
Common Ground With O’Keeffe
Features found in at least four works
by O’Keeffe – many of which are representative of several other similar works by
her – show common ground with cards in the Rider-Waite deck.
Skull with White Rose (1931)
O’Keeffe’s 1931 painting, Horse’s Skull with White Rose (fig. 2)
shares many features with the Death
card of the Rider-Waite deck (fig. 3)
, including a white rose, the prominent
placement of a horse’s head, and fully-exposed bone. In the painting, the
horse’s skull faces the viewer, while in the card, the horse and its skeletal
rider face several individuals.
Scholars of the Tarot see the white
rose in the Death card as a symbol of rebirth and immortality,15
the horse serving as a guide through the desolate-looking landscape.16
Thus, while depictions of this card in popular culture often link it to “doom
and gloom,” Tarot readers consider it to be a card of rebirth, or “death of the
As Waite himself put it, the image represents “rebirth, creation, destination,
[and] renewal . . . .18
In particular, the card emphasizes attitudes
about change. The figures facing the rider react in different ways – the
oldest, dressed like a bishop, seems fearful, while the small child near him
does not seem alarmed at all.
By placing the viewer as a sidelong
observer to the action it depicts, the Death card allows the viewer to consider
the responses of the characters in the card, while forming his or her own
reaction to its imagery. In contrast, O’Keeffe’s painting orients the key
images toward the viewer, without the involvement of other characters, or even
a background. Despite these differences, both works challenge the viewer with
similar, and provocative, imagery.
B. Spring (1948)
In Spring (fig. 4)
, an abstract winged figure floats above white
flowers, a mountain, and what may either be a branch of part of a set of
antlers. Winged figures also float above the ground in the Rider-Waite cards
“Judgement (sic)” (fig. 5)
, and “Lovers” (fig. 6)
. As with Horse’s Skull
, this common element suggests that the works may
address similar topics.
Unlike other design elements in the
Rider-Waite deck, Tarot scholars do not generally see the angelic figures in
these two cards as symbols of an abstract concept; rather, they are considered
to depict actual beings.19
In the “Lovers” card, the figure blesses the couple before it;20
Waite described it as “arms extended, pouring down influences.”21
Similarly, in “Judgement,” evoking imagery
from the Biblical book of Revelations, the figure actively influences the
figures before it by blowing a large trumpet22
“the summons of the Supernal” in Waite’s description.23
has no human forms. But the three shapes beneath the winged figure are clearly
recognizable as “of this world” – flowers, a geological formation, and part of
an animal or tree. In contrast, the figure in the sky is deeply enigmatic – too
full and symmetric to be a cloud, the wrong color to be a bat, etc. But despite
its mysterious appearance, it has many surface similarities to the worldly
figures beneath it, exhibiting a similar overall color and texture. Those
similarities in appearance serve to connect the four forms in the painting,
even though their substance differs substantially.
The “Judgment” and “Lovers” cards
ask the viewer to consider the relationship between earthly beings and an
unearthly, “higher” force. Spring
contains more abstract imagery, and omits any human element. But both works use
a similar structure to present comparable images involving the relationship
between earthly matters and an “other” presence, high above.
Night (fig. 7)
places the viewer on a path between two tall skyscrapers,
with a handful of stars visible in the space above and between them. The Rider-Waite card “The Moon” (fig. 8)
the viewer in a similar location, with the structures less prominent and the
sky more so. And while “The Star” (fig. 9)
features no structures, a stylized
arrangement of stars fills the top of its image.
Tarot analysts consider the “Moon”
card to involve the finding of a path;24
specifically, by the traveler listening to and learning from his or her subconscious
The “Star” card also addresses spiritual journey, but with a focus on spiritual
enlightenment and a sense of “connection” to the heavens.26
The eight-pointed stars in the card, and their stylized arrangement in the sky,
evoke old symbols traditionally used by different cultures to illustrate those
Night appears to fall somewhere in the middle. While stylized stars appear
in the city sky, they seem farther away than the ones in “Star” and the tall
buildings obscure much of the sky. (Indeed, on close observation, the
arrangement in City Night appears to
comprise exactly half of the arrangement in the sky of “Star” card.) And while
the buildings in City Night frame a
path for the viewer, unlike the “Moon” card, the precise destination of the
path is not shown, and neither are any fellow travelers along it.
Despite these differences, City Night uses similar imagery as these
two cards, in a similar pattern, to convey the idea of a path. To the extent
its overall presentation is more ambiguous than the cards about the “guiding
lights” for the path, as well as the precise course of the path, that
difference appears to result from O’Keeffe’s manipulation of those images to
accurately capture the subtleties of the urban setting that the painting
depicts. And the absence of other travelers, besides the viewer, echoes the way
that Horse’s Skull and Spring present their challenging imagery
to the viewer – and the viewer alone.
Pink with the Pedernal (1937)
Many O’Keeffe works feature the
“Pedernal,” a distinctive mountain that dominated the view at her New Mexico
ranch. In Hollyhock Pink
mountain appears to one side of a large flower image. The exact
relationship between those two objects (Did one create the other? Do they fuel
or influence one another in some way?) is not obvious from the painting, but the
placement of the objects plainly invites the viewer to consider a connection
Similar perspectives appear in the
Rider-Waite cards “Temperance” (fig. 10)
and “The Hermit” (fig. 11)
“Temperance,” considered to be a card of balance, features a mountain in the
backdrop with light coming from it;28
or as Waite put it, “[a] direct path goes up to certain heights on the verge of
the horizon . . . .”29
Hermit card is set from the opposite point of view, placing the figure on a mountaintop
where he has sought and found wisdom.30
While the cards depict wisdom flowing
from a mountain, in Hollyhock Pink, it
is not obvious what is flowing where. As in other works discussed earlier, the
viewer is left to confront that question and answer it in his or her own way.
Four well-known works by Georgia
O’Keefe appear to pose questions to the viewer that are similar to the
questions posed by several Tarot cards in the Rider-Waite deck, and use similar
imagery to present those questions. These similarities suggest at least four further
, they remind of the
power and energy of modernist art concepts at the beginning of the Twentieth
Century. Summarizing this environment, one commentator observed that O’Keeffe
“developed her art in an intuitive response to the welter of movement swirling
around her” in the New York of that time31
a “swirl” that was particularly active in the circle of Joseph Stieglitz and
Both O’Keeffe and Colman Smith were deeply involved in that circle; and they
came to it well-equipped, with personal backgrounds in graphic design, and in
Colman Smith’s case, modern photography.33
These shared intellectual
influences, as well as overlapping social circles, raise the tantalizing
question whether O’Keeffe ever saw the Rider-Waite deck that Colman Smith sent to
Stieglitz. No evidence shows that she did, but a good circumstantial case
suggests that O’Keeffe and the deck could well have been in the same New York
room, unless Stieglitz was uninterested in the Tarot, wanted to rid himself of
Colman Smith memorabilia, or simply had a tidy housekeeper.
, when the cards
and an O’Keeffe work appear to address similar topics, the O’Keeffe work
presents the topic in a way that poses a more direct challenge to the viewer
than the cards. That observation is consistent with a general one often made
about O’Keeffe; as one commentator summarizes, “Georgia O’Keeffe’s great
contribution to the artistic discourse in the twentieth century is the
tentatively searching self.”34
emphasis on the self is likely one of the reasons that people never appear in
Here, that observation has
particular force, because the Tarot deck is intended to be used as part of a
dialogue between the reader and the querent. It is natural, then, for the cards
to include images that facilitate that dialogue, such as pictures of other
people reacting to the very topics presented by the card. That environment is a
fundamentally different one from the viewer interacting with a work of art in a
museum, even as part of a group with a tour guide nearby.
, the similarities between
these works emphasize the teaching of modern psychology about the power of
universal symbols. Carl Jung, a pioneer of the idea of “archetypes” deep in the
human subconscious, commented that the Rider-Waite deck made powerful use of
symbols related to those concepts.36
The recurrence of similar symbols in O’Keeffe’s work shows their power and
attractiveness to present basic ideas about the human condition.
Anthony Lewis, Tarot: Beyond the Basics, 8 (Llewellyn 2010).
Sylvia Abraham, How to Use Tarot Spreads (Llewellyn 2006).
Ruth Ann & Wald Amberstone, The Secret Language of Tarot (Red Wheel / Weiser 2008).
Salomon A. Barajas, Tarot: The Game of Divination (lulu.com 2013).
Bice Curiger, Carter Ratcliff & Peter Schneeman, Georgia O’Keeffe, 16-17 (Hatje Cantz 2003).
Bram Dijistic, Georgia O’Keeffe and the Eros of Place, at 101-02 (Princeton 1998).
Mary K. Greer, “Carl Jung and Tarot,” Mary K. Greer’s Tarot Blog (March 31, 2008), www.marygreer.wordpress.com/2008/03/31/carl-jung-and-tarot
Marcus Katz & Tali Goodwin, Tarot Face to Face (Llewellyn 2012).
David LeMieux, The Ancient Tarot and its Symbolism: A Guide (Cornwall Books 1985).
Anthony Lewis, Tarot: Beyond the Basics (Llewellyn 2010).
Barbara Moore, Tarot Spreads (Llewellyn 2013).
Rachel Pollack, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot (Element 1999).
Rachel Pollack, The Tarot Unveiled (Llewellyn 2005).
Kathleen A. Pyne, Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle (Univ. of California Press 2007).
Sherryl E. Smith, “The Rider Waite Smith Deck,” Tarot Heritage, www.tarot-heritage.com/history-4/the-rider-waite-smith-deck
James Voorhies, “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000), www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgl/hd_stgl.htm
A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot
(Rider 1911) (available at www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/pkt
J.D., University of Texas, A.B., Harvard College,
David Coale is a partner with the Dallas firm of Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst LLP, where he focuses on civil appellate law. A former national debate champion at Harvard and former chair of the State Bar of Texas Appellate Section, he is ranked as one of the "Top 100 Attorneys in Texas" by Texas Law & Politics. He has no particular qualification to write about Georgia O'Keeffe or Pamela Colman Smith, other than great appreciation for the passion and skill that they each brought to their art. He thanks his law partner Mike Lynn for taking him to the Georgia O'Keeffe Musem in Santa Fe, which sparked the idea for this article.