Book Review:

Pamela Colman Smith: Artist, Feminist, Mystic, by Elizabeth Foley O’Connor

Reviewed by Jill O’Connor

Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts

Review of Elizabeth Foley O’Connor’s Pamela Colman Smith: Artist, Feminist, Mystic, Clemson University Press, 2021. 302 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1-949979-39-8).                                       

Pamela Colman Smith is probably one of the most famous artists no one has ever heard of. Elizabeth Foley O’Connor is trying to change that with her new book, which examines Colman Smith’s journey as a woman artist in the male-dominated art world of the early 20th century. Foley O’Connor takes the reader on a moving ride through Colman Smith’s unconventional and trailblazing life.

Colman Smith’s story is fraught with exclusion, and Foley O’Connor outlines the struggle for acceptance Colman Smith waged throughout her career. During her time, she never received true recognition of her talent but instead seemed to be undermined and othered at every turn. The Rider Waite Tarot Deck, which Colman Smith illustrated and which remains one of the most beloved and popular decks since its inception, omits her name from the title. The deck was stacked against Colman Smith from the beginning.

In Chapter One, Foley O’Connor establishes the nature of the discrimination Coleman Smith faced. Described as “funny looking” and a “primitive American” by John Yeats in a letter to his son W.B. Yeats, Colman Smith’s race was repeatedly questioned. She was also termed a “Japanese toy” by Shakespearean actor Ellen Terry, who would go on to become one of Colman Smith’s closest friends. Colman Smith was also considered a “masculine” woman, a term used for women who eschewed traditional norms for women coming of age in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She was never attached romantically throughout her life, including never marrying or having children, and her companions were always women.

Chapter Two explores the beginning of Colman Smith’s artistic journey. Although the Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Nouveau, and the Pre-Raphaelites inspired Colman Smith, her work remained uniquely her own. Just shy of her 20th birthday in 1897, she had her first gallery show where several watercolors, illustrations, and prints were sold. That same year she was featured in the Pratt Institute Monthly. The issue reproduced several of her works, showcasing her use of contrast in representing the human figure. Her interest in folklore grew with her creation of lush deluxe editions. The new demand for books as works of art convinced R.H. Russell to publish hand-colored editions of her work, including A Christmas Carol (1898). Its depiction of the movement of Mary and Jesus’ robes as well as of their faces in profile are elements that would become prominent later in her artwork, especially in her musical vision paintings and the images she drew for the Rider Waite Tarot Deck.

Chapter Three showcases the way Colman Smith was able to embrace her otherness. With the help of her friend Ellen Terry, she set herself apart as “Pixie” during the first part of the twentieth century. This moniker, which Terry bestowed upon her, breathed new life into Colman Smith, who used it to carve out a new space for herself and embolden her creative spirit. Foley O’Connor attributes Colman Smith’s increased artistic output both to her new identity as a pixie and to her return to England from America. The next ten years would chart her artistic development. Colman Smith was a painter, illustrator, writer, performer of miniature theater, and raconteur of Jamaican Anansi stories in flowing robes with her hair adorned in beads. Additionally, during this time, she took more control of her published work by producing a broadsheet, The Green Sheath, which printed her art and poems and the work of those in her creative circle.

Chapter Four highlights a pivotal moment in a particularly productive period of the artist’s life. In 1902 Colman Smith’s synesthesia was re-awakened, which inspired a prodigious output of work including paintings of her musical visions. These works made up the portfolio she gave to Alfred Stieglitz on a trip to America. Foley O’Connor identifies this meeting as critical to Colman Smith’s career. Colman Smith had three shows at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery, which had only shown photographic works until that point. Although the overall reception was positive, some critics dismissed Colman Smith’s technique and artistic ability in veiled racist terms as “primitive”; similar misconceptions plagued her throughout her career. Even when confronted by negative reviews, Colman Smith never acquiesced her creative vision to others.

Throughout the book, Foley O’Connor draws attention to Colman Smith’s interesting and eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances that included Bram Stoker and British stage actress Florence Farr. Chapter Five focuses on the role W.B. Yeats played in Colman Smith’s life by bringing her into the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. When this original group split, A.E. Waite created a new group, and several members followed him, including Colman Smith. Waite was initially enthusiastic about working with her and guiding her symbolic and vivid language. Their collaboration on the Rider Waite Tarot Deck was a tremendous success, even if Waite himself eventually minimized Colman Smith’s contribution.

With passion and dedication to her subject, Foley O’Connor portrays Colman Smith as a magical tour de force; she details Colman Smith’s small victories and massive losses in an informative tone that still makes for an emotional read as we watch Colman Smith achieve a modicum of success only for it to be lost or taken away again. Colman Smith always believed that success was within reach throughout her career and that she would eventually achieve financial security through her artistic practices. However, in the Epilogue, Foley O’Connor discloses that this outcome never happens for Colman Smith and that she left this world in debt and possibly as an alcoholic. Though Colman Smith’s fortunes eluded her in life, through the eyes of Foley O’Connor, Pixie has a second chance to be appreciated for the thoroughly modern woman and artist she was.

-8 Jan. 2022