Russell Smith (1812-1896) was a native of Glasgow, Scotland whose family came to the United States in 1819 and settled near Pittsburgh. The Smith children were educated at home, and Russell showed an early interest in art. His first formal training in portraiture and landscape painting was in Pittsburgh under James Reid Lambdin. Around 1827, Smith began painting backdrops for theaters and within 6 years had achieved a national reputation for his theatrical painting. In 1835 he moved to Philadelphia to paint for the Walnut Street Theater, and soon received commissions to paint for theaters in Boston and Washington. Around this time, he also began writing poetry. Even while engaged in theatrical work, Smith continued to paint landscapes which were exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and the Artists' Fund Society of Philadelphia as early as 1834.
Russell Smith married Mary Priscilla Wilson, a flower painter and teacher of French and drawing, in 1838. By the 1840s, in addition to painting landscapes and theatrical backdrops, Smith was advertising his services as an "illustrator for lectures on various branches of natural science painted in distemper." He accompanied the scientific expeditions of geologists William Barton Rogers and Henry Darwin Rogers to Virginia and the Susquehanna and Juniata River valleys of Pennsylvania in 1844 and 1845 as an illustrator. During this period, Smith also traveled extensively in New Hampshire and upstate New York for summer painting expeditions. The Smiths traveled to Europe with their two children in 1851-1852, touring Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, Italy, the Netherlands, London, and Paris. Smith visited major museums and private collections, as well as architectural attractions, making sketches and keeping detailed notes of the trip.
Smith continued painting landscapes well into old age, even though his long out of fashion works were rejected with increasing frequency by the juries of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He died in 1896.
Born in Milestown, Pennsylvania in 1819, Mary Priscilla Smith (1819-1874) studied at a female seminary in Germantown, Pennsylvania operated by noted educator William Russell (Russell Smith's uncle) in Germantown, Pennsylvania, and at Charles Picot's school in Philadelphia. She eventually became a teacher of French, drawing, and painting at the Picot school, and later taught at a school established by William Russell in Philadelphia.
At her husband's urging, Mary Priscilla Smith, already an accomplished flower painter, began painting figures and landscapes, and participated in exhibitions of the Artists' Fund Society exhibitions. After becoming a mother, she painted very little but taught her children, Xanthus and Mary, to draw and paint. Mary Priscilla Smith died in 1874.
Xanthus Smith (1839-1929) was born in Philadelphia and was educated at home. During the family's European tour of 1851-1852 he saw a wide variety of art and, upon returning home, began painting with enthusiasm. Around 1858 he enrolled in a cast drawing class at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
At the start of the Civil War Xanthus Smith enlisted in the Navy, where he served as clerk to the commander of a flagship guarding Port Royal, South Carolina. He began producing detailed drawings of the ships both for official purposes and his own enjoyment. After the war, he continued painting ships and exhibited many of these paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Further commissions of Civil War subjects followed, and Xanthus Smith was soon recognized as the foremost painter of Civil War naval battle scenes.
In the 1880s, Xanthus Smith began painting European landscapes, probably based on his father's sketches made during their 1851-1852 tour of Europe. By the 1900s, he was concentrating on portraiture and figure subjects, and continued painting well into old age. His final years were spent in an unsuccessful attempt to publish his autobiography, "An Unvarnished Tale." Xanthus Smith died in 1929.
Mary Russell Smith (1842-1878) was born near Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. Her mother provided her with instruction in flower painting and she sketched animals and insects independently. At age fourteen Mary Smith completed her first oil painting and by 1858 had begun compiling a list of her completed pictures. She was encouraged by her parents to pursue a career as a professional artist. From 1859-1869, and in 1876 and 1878, Mary Smith exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. She also participated in exhibitions at the National Academy of Design in New York, and in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition held in Philadelphia.
From early childhood, Mary Smith enjoyed raising poultry, and chickens became her favorite painting subject. Her paintings of chickens were popular with Philadelphia art collectors, and sought after in England.
Always sickly, Mary Smith died of gastric fever in 1878. At her request, Russell Smith established the Mary Smith Prize, awarded annually by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, for the best painting exhibited by a woman resident of Philadelphia.