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.
Pamela Colman Smith
Georgia O’Keeffe
Background – the Tarot
“Tarot” refers to a deck of cards used for divination.1 The documented history of the modern Tarot deck extends to the 1400s,2 with 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 The 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),
Figure 1: Pamela Colman Smith, c. 1912.
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 She 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 photography.10 By 1909-10, their relationship cooled as Stieglitz developed connections with other talented modernists, and not long afterwards she moved to England permanently.11 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.

A.Horse’s Skull with White Rose (1931)

O’Keeffe’s 1931 painting, Horse’s Skull with White Rose (fig. 2),
Figure 2:Georgia O’Keeffe, Horse’s Skull with White Rose (1931), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, on extended loan from private collection. Oil on canvas, 36 x 16 1/8 inches.
shares many features with the Death card of the Rider-Waite deck (fig. 3),
Figure 3: A.E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, Death (1910).
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 with 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 old self.”17 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),
Figure 4: Georgia O’Keeffe, Spring (1948), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Oil on canvas. 48 ¼ x 84 ¼ inches. Image Source: O'Keeffe Museum.
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),
Figure 5: A.E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, Judgement (1910).
and “Lovers” (fig. 6).
Figure 6: A.E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, The Lovers (1910).
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
Spring 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.

C.City Night (1926)

City Night (fig. 7)
Figure 7: Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (City Night) (1971), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Oil on canvas, 83 x 47 ¾ inches. Image Source: O'Keeffe Museum.
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)
Figure 8: A.E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, The Moon(1910).
places the viewer in a similar location, with the structures less prominent and the sky more so. And while “The Star” (fig. 9)
Figure 9: A.E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, The Star(1910).
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 intuition.25 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 ideas.27
City 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.

D.Hollyhock 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 (1937), that 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 between them.
Similar perspectives appear in the Rider-Waite cards “Temperance” (fig. 10)
Figure 10: A.E. Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, Temperance(1910).
and “The Hermit” (fig. 11).
Figure 11: A.E.Waite & Pamela Colman Smith, The Hermit(1910).
“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 The 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.
Conclusions
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 observations.
First, 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 his gallery.32 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.
Second, 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 That emphasis on the self is likely one of the reasons that people never appear in O’Keeffe’s work.35
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.
Third, 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.
Endnotes
1 Anthony Lewis, Tarot: Beyond the Basics, 8 (Llewellyn 2010).
2 Rachel Pollack, The Complete Illustrated Guide to Tarot, at 24 (Element 1999) (cited as Pollack [Guide)]); David LeMieux, The Ancient Tarot and its Symbolism: A Guide, 25 (Cornwall Books 1985).
3 LeMieux, 27-28; Pollack [Guide], 18.
4 Sylvia Abraham, How to Use Tarot Spreads (Llewellyn 2006); Barbara Moore, Tarot Spreads (Llewellyn 2013); Pollack [Guide], 27-33.
5 Marcus Katz & Tali Goodwin, Tarot Face to Face (Llewllyn 2012).
6 Pollack [Guide], 38.
7 Ruth Ann & Wald Amberstone, The Secret Language of Tarot at xvii (Red Wheel / Weiser 2008); Pollack [Guide], 12.
8 Sherryl E. Smith, “The Rider Waite Smith Deck,” Tarot Heritage, www.tarot-heritage.com/history-4/the-rider-waite-smith-deck
9 Kathleen A. Pyne, Modernism and the Feminine Voice: O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle, at 47 (Univ. of California Press 2007).
10 Ibid.  47.
11 Ibid. 192.
12 https://marygreer.files.wordpress.com/2008/04/pcs-to-stieglitz1.jpg (copy on file with the author).
13 Pyne, 61.
14 Ibid. xxix.
15 Amberstone & Amberstone, 129.
16 Ibid. 126.
17 Pollack 85.
18 A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, at Part II Section XII (Rider 1911) (available at www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/pkt)
19 Amberstone and Amberstone, 248.
20 Pollack, Guide, 78; Rachel Pollack, The Tarot Unveiled, 47-48 (Llewellyn 2005) (cited as Pollack [Unveiled]).
21 Waite, Part II Section VI.
22 Amberstone & Amberstone, 92.
23 Waite, Part II Section XX.
24 Amberstone & Amberstone, 237; LeMieux, 171; Pollack [Unveiled], 88.
25 Amberstone & Amberstone, 95.
26 Pollack [Guide], 89.
27 Amberstone & Amberstone, 103
28 Amberstone & Amberstone, 66.
29 Waite, Part II Section XIV.
30 Amberstone & Amberstone, 67.
31 Bijistic, 94.
32 Bice Curiger, Carter Ratcliff & Peter Schneeman, Georgia O’Keeffe, 16-17 (Hatje Cantz 2003); James Voorhies, “Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) and His Circle.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000) (Oct. 2004), www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stgl/hd_stgl.htm
33 Bram Dijistic, Georgia O’Keeffe and the Eros of Place, 101-02 (Princeton 1998). The author thanks Randall Griffin of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts for his insights about the influence of modernist ideas on both artists.
34 Curinger et al., 27.
35 Ibid. 16-17.
36 LeMieux, 25; 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 .
Bibliography
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 (October 2004)
A. E. Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (Rider 1911) (available at www.sacred-texts.com/tarot/pkt)
David Coale
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.

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