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19th Century Hudson River School Painter
This biography was submitted by The Charleston Renaissance Gallery
WILLIAM THOMPSON RUSSELL SMITH (1812-1896)
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Russell Smith (christened William Thompson Russell) emigrated with his family to western Pennsylvania in 1819, and to Pittsburgh five years later. As a teen, he worked for his father, a successful manufacturer of edge tools. The experience Smith acquired in handling precision instruments proved useful in 1827, when he became involved as both actor and scenery painter in a local thespian society. By 1831, he had become an accomplished scene and panorama painter, and had served as caretaker of the Lambdin Museum. During his tenure in this position, Smith took painting lessons from the museum’s founder, the portrait painter James Reid Lambdin, who had studied with Thomas Sully.
Smith’s success in theatrical scenery and drop curtains led to a post with Francis Courtney Wemyss’ theater in Pittsburgh and then with the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. Smith continued to work with Wemyss well into the 1840s, in both Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. His considerable renown attracted commissions from theaters all over the East, from New York to Georgia.
Smith was also interested in science, especially geology, and was hired by eminent geologists to illustrate their lectures and record their expeditions. His geological interests took him on several expeditions, most notably with William Barton Rogers to Virginia in 1844. Smith also provided assistance to Benjamin Silliman and Sir Charles Lyell. In 1858, he painted lecture illustrations and at least one large “oriental landscape” for the Peale Museum in Philadelphia (Chambers, p. 17).
In addition to his commercial activities, Smith painted landscapes and portraits. Despite his early reliance on portraiture, Smith believed, from childhood on, that he was destined to be a landscape painter. Inspired by the works of Thomas Cole and Thomas Doughty, Smith, around 1835, turned to landscape and became a devoted practitioner of the romantic-realist aesthetic of the Hudson River School. Like Cole and his followers, Smith spent his summers on sketching tours, making detailed plein-air studies that were later incorporated into finished compositions. During the 1840s, his favorite haunts were the Juniata, Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers; the White Mountains; and various locations in upstate New York.
Smith traveled to Europe with his family in 1851 and spent two years sketching and painting the scenery in England, Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, Italy, France and Holland.
Smith’s work was never as well known or as highly regarded as the major practitioners of the Hudson River School style, but he received good reviews, sold his landscapes and earned a good living. He designed and built two houses. The first, called Rockhill, was built in Branchtown, Pennsylvania in 1840; the second, Edgehill, in Jenkintown in 1856. Smith’s studio at Edgehill was equipped with a special apparatus that enabled the artist to paint full-scale stage scenes at home.
Smith first exhibited his works at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1834, and then participated annually from 1847 through 1869. He also exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York (1836); at the Apollo Association in New York (1838, 1839 and 1840); at the Boston Athenaeum (1842); and the Artist’s Fund Society in Philadelphia (1836 through 1845). In 1876, he was represented at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia by Cave at Chelton Hills.
Smith was a member of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and served on its Board of Academicians; he was elected a member of the Artist’s Fund Society in 1836.
During the last part of his life, Smith devoted himself almost exclusively to painting the landscape around Philadelphia. His wife, Mary Wilson Smith, and his children, Mary and Xanthus Russell Smith, were also accomplished artists. In 1884, Smith wrote a lengthy retrospective account of his life, which he intended to publish, but never finished. The project was taken over and completed by Virginia Lewis in 1956. Smith died November 8, 1896.
Nancy Rivard Shaw, 1999© Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc.
Chambers, Bruce W. "Art and Artists of the South: The Robert P. Coggins Collection". Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.
"The Hudson River School: American Landscape Paintings from 1821 to 1907". Shreveport, Louisiana: The R .W. Norton Art Gallery, 1973.
Lewis, Virginia E., "Russell Smith, Romantic Realist". Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956.
"New Hampshire Landscapes", 1848-50, By Russell Smith (1812-1896). Boston: Vose Galleries, n.d.
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A painter of grand-scale landscapes in the mid 19th century, Russell Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and emigrated with his parents in 1819 to western Pennsylvania where he grew up in Pittsburgh. His birth name was William Thompson Russell Smith. He was self-taught as an artist, and became a highly successful scenic designer, scientific illustrator, as well as panoramic landscape painter. He excelled at dramatic vistas with atmospheric effects intending to show the grandeur of nature, but he also painted small intimate landscapes, which some persons have thought he preferred.
He began earning money as a painter of commercial signs. For fun, he did life-size portraits of famous heroes and then studied with portraitist James Reid Lambdin from 1829 to 1832. A trip to Europe introduced him to the work of Frenchman Claude Lorraine whose vast landscape paintings dwarfed human figures.
In 1833, he became a scenic artist for the Pittsburgh Theater and then moved to Philadelphia, where he worked for six years at the Chestnut and Walnut Street theaters as a designer. He also did stage and curtain designs for the Philadelphia Academy of Music and other east-coast theaters and worked as a scientific draftsman for geological surveys in Pennsylvania and Virginia.
Married to artist, Mary Priscilla Wilson, he had paintings exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. He established the Mary Smith prize for paintings by female artists at the Pennsylvania Academy in memory of his artist daughter. His son, Xanthus, was also a successful painter.
Credit: Peter Falk, Who Was Who in American Art.
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