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Xanthus Russell Smith

 (1839 - 1929)
Xanthus Russell Smith was active/lived in Pennsylvania, Maine.  Xanthus Smith is known for marine vessel paintings, naval activity.

Xanthus Russell Smith

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Xanthus Russell Smith
Known as a painter of Civil War marine battle scenes, Xanthus Smith sold his first paintings at age fifteen.  Two years later he exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and by the start of the Civil War, he was an established painter.  His signature paintings after the War were small and had minute brushstrokes, blending clouds and sky with space well defined.

He was born and raised in suburban Philadelphia, and learned much of his painting technique from his mother, Mary Priscilla Smith, who was an accomplished painter in a delicate manner of flowers in watercolor.  His father was a theater scene painter whose style was much bolder and aggressive than his wife's.

Xanthus served in the Union Navy from September, 1862 and painted while serving as a captain's clerk.  He saw limited action, but his love of the sea led to a series of naval scenes, painted between 1869 and 1874.  His studio was in Philadelphia, where he also sold many marine and landscape paintings, most of them small about eight by twelve inches.  One of his paintings was a 30-foot long beach scene of Cape May, New Jersey, which was painted for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

He also painted portraits and did photography, but painting Civil War scenes remained a life-long specialty.

Michael Zellman, 300 Years of American Art
Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art

Biography from The Johnson Collection
Born to the artists William Thompson Russell Smith and Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith, Xanthus Smith received his first formal art education at home. The Smiths' legendary stone manor house, Edgehill, was long a destination for the most ambitious collectors and earnest artists in mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia, and it was in this nurturing environment that young Smith honed his precocious skills as a draftsman. From 1851-1852, he accompanied his parents and sister on a study tour of Europe where he surveyed old master paintings, paying particular notice to the realism and naturalism of the English landscape school. "Art is founded on nature," Smith would later comment, and "whenever it strays from its truths and beauties it is off the track." Upon his return to Philadelphia, Smith began to paint landscapes while also attending chemistry classes at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1858, he enrolled in the antique class at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; there, his penchant for realism found resonance with English pre-Raphaelite paintings characterized by sharp focus and high finish.

Following the outbreak of the Civil War, Smith, a passionate loyalist, enlisted in the United States Navy. He served as captain's clerk on the USS Wabash, Rear Admiral Samuel Francis Du Pont's flagship, from September 1862 until July 1863. Throughout his tour of duty, Smith was continually making small watercolor sketches and drawings he would later use as the foundations for his trademark painstakingly detailed works such as A South Carolina Coast Scene and Hilton Head, Port Royal, S.C. His drawings soon came to the attention of Admiral Du Pont, who commissioned Smith to paint ships of the fleet. Smith also maintained a meticulous journal during his years of service, and his account of life on the Wabash provides a rare glimpse of the war as seen through the eyes of an artist.

Relieved from duty in October 1864, Smith returned to Philadelphia where he began to exhibit his paintings of federal vessels and the South Carolina coast, drawing critical acclaim in the local press. Between 1868 and 1876, Smith executed fifteen large-scale marine paintings depicting the war's major naval engagements, culminating in the sensational display of his massive Battle of the Kearsarge and Alabama at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Though demand for Smith's marine scenes waned in the 1880s and beyond, Smith continued to paint in a precise style, drawing on his site-specific knowledge of Civil War scenes. He also served as an active fundraiser for veterans' organizations and pursued photographic interests. In his last decade, Smith began to refer to himself as the "oldest living and practicing artist with Civil War experiences."

The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina

Biography from Carolina Galleries - Southern Art
Born in 1839 in Philadelphia, Xanthus was the son of artist Russell Smith. During the Civil War, Smith served as an artist and officer on the USS Wabash, the flagship of the Navy's South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, and the Augusta.

Smith relied on photographs, maps, and eyewitness accounts, as well as his wartime sketches, to create a series of paintings of naval battles of the Civil War from 1869-1874.

Prior to the war, Smith had studied with his father, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and at the Royal Academy in London.

His work is in the collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Mariner's Museum, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and the Union League Club of Philadelphia.

Biography from Charleston Renaissance Gallery
Xanthus Smith (1839-1929) was a prolific artist who worked in a variety of media. His American Civil War paintings and drawings are his most notable body of work.

As a captain's clerk aboard the USS Wabash he participated in Union naval activities at Port Royal, South Carolina in 1862-1863. His meticulous documentation of warships, encampments and naval engagements complements his other aesthetic acomplishments to make him one of the most renowned Civil War artists.

Smith died in Philadelphia in 1929.

Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Xanthus Russell Smith was born in 1839 into a family of Philadelphia painters, including his parents and sister.  He received initial drawing instruction from his parents until he advanced to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.  With the Civil War at hand, Smith enlisted in the Navy and received a favorable commission as a captain's clerk through the intercession of a family friend. (1) 

The turning point in Smith's career as an artist actually came with his enlistment in the Navy during the Civil War.  While serving on ships such as Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont's flagship, the Wabash, and then the steamer Augusta, Smith studied the vessels and articulated their detail through meticulously drawn compositions.  Smith found time to sketch after fulfilling his daily duties.  He even made several trips ashore, which provided additional material for his sketches.

During his service he relied on his parents to send drawing and painting materials on a regular basis.  Smith illustrated naval activity on a small scale.  He limited most of his compositions to less than fifteen inches on either side, developing his personal penchant for the "small, compact, and neat."

He found patrons for these drawings amongst the men serving alongside him.  Writing to his parents during his duty in 1863, Smith noted, "I have only done one sketch on my large paper yet, it is a careful pencil sketch, tinted with the crayons of the machine shop.  But it has given such satisfaction to the few that have seen it, that two of the officers are determined to have copies of it and I am engaged on one of the copies now. I am to get seven dollars each for them…" (2)

After Smith's naval service ended and before his death in 1929, he continued to paint accurate and detailed depictions of sea-going vessels and battles they encountered. Smith discovered his niche in the art world, for his compositions evoked consistent approval from patrons, as well as the favor of critics at exhibitions.

Sources include:

1. James Louis Fisher, Xanthus Smith: Civil War Painter, Master's Thesis (University of Delaware, 1982); footnote #32 in the thesis states the source for this information, Miscellaneous journal, Smith Family Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, reel 2040, frame 9.

2. Xanthus Smith to Russell Smith, 12 February 1863, Xanthus Russell Smith Family Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, reel 2035, frame 504.

Submitted by Staff, Columbus Museum

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About  Xanthus Russell Smith

Born:  1839 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died:   1929 - Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Known for:  marine vessel paintings, naval activity

Essays referring to
Xanthus Russell Smith

Civil War Art