Xanthus Russell Smith (1839-1929)

Xanthus Russell Smith (1839-1929)

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to artists Russell and Mary (Wilson) Smith, Xanthus Smith began his artistic training under his parents, accompanying them to Europe from 1851-52, and sketching with his father in the Pennsylvania interior and Allegheny Mountains. He later studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School from 1856 until 1858, but pursued his formal arts education at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Royal Academy in London.  

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After the Civil War erupted, Smith enlisted from 1862 to 1864, serving as a captain’s clerk with the Union Navy. He was first assigned to the Wabash, and later worked aboard the side-wheel steamer Augusta, and was encouraged by his superiors to continue to paint and sketch, images made both for the Union and for himself. He established a close relationship with Rear Admiral Samuel Francis du Pont, Commander of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron, who, in a letter to his wife, remarked that Xanthus “sketches and takes ships beautifully – he has a collection of all our steamers that will be very curious some day.” [1] Smith saw little action personally, but chose to represent many of the important battles of the period and kept with the theme after the war, focusing on shipping scenes and coastal landscapes. His most important series of Civil War pictures were done between 1869 and 1874, paintings executed with Smith’s penchant for accuracy and his ability to capture the mood of the battle.  He also completed many commissions of ship portraits and famous battles for prominent collectors, including Charles Rodgers, President of Tradesmen’s Bank, and for institutions, namely the Union Club of Philadelphia and the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Like his father, Smith was a successful artist and exhibited frequently at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts annual exhibitions from 1856 until 1887. 

Beginning in 1877, Smith began traveling to Mt. Desert Island, Maine, to paint and eventually settled into a summer home at Casco Bay. He also maintained his home state connections, residing in Edgehill, near Philadelphia, during the winter months.  In his later years, he experimented with portraiture and became interested in photography, before passing away at Edgehill in 1929.

In 1977, Vose Galleries mounted an exhibition featuring Russell and Xanthus Smith’s work, followed two years later by another successful joint show. In 1997, the gallery opened a solo exhibition of Xanthus Smith’s Civil War paintings and drawings, featuring both landscapes and marines. Today his work can be found in the collections of the Pennsylvania Academy, the Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, Georgia, and the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, among several other institutions.   

References: See Falk, Who Was Who In American Art (1999), Vose Galleries exhibition catalogues; Schwarz Gallery, Philadelphia, exhibition catalogue, Xanthus Smith and the Civil War, by Robert Wilson Torchia (Warminster, PA: Piccari Press, 1999). 

[1] Samuel Francis du Pont to Mrs. Samuel Francis du Pont, December 24, 1862, quoted in Samuel Francis du Pont, A Selection from His Civil War Letters, vol. 2, The Blockade: 1862-1863, ed. John D. Hayes (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1969), p. 317, as referenced in Schwarz Gallery catalogue, Xanthus Smith and the Civil War, by Robert Wilson Torchia, April 1999 (Warminster, PA: Piccari Press, 1999).

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