The son of Scottish social reformers, William Thompson Russell Smith came to America as a young boy in 1819. His family established a home in Pittsburgh, where Smith undertook his first formal instruction with James Reid Lambdin. Smith’s painterly skills were further honed by the years he spent as a painter of theatrical scenes and stage curtains, a pursuit that led him to Philadelphia in 1835. By that time, the artist had already exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in that city and was earning commissions from theaters throughout the East. He also executed portraits and, increasingly, landscapes informed by a romantic aesthetic.
Inspired by the example of his contemporaries in the Hudson River School, especially Thomas Cole and Thomas Doughty, Smith began to make summer sketching tours in search of stirring subject matter. Extant work from the period 1838-1844 indicates his recurring presence in Virginia, including Charlottesville, Mount Vernon, Franklin and at the Natural Bridge. Smith’s familiarity with the area made him a useful illustrator on several geological expeditions, most notably that of William Barton Rogers in 1844. It was on that trip that Smith created A Baptizing on the South Branch of the Potomac near Franklin, Va. and several other scenes of rural life. The specific site of the baptismal scene, Franklin, was a small settlement in the mountains, an area Smith described as “picturesque” in the highly detailed journal he maintained throughout his travels. Fascinated by the folkways of the frontier people who lived there, he recorded a group of congregants in a delicate, jewel-toned painting that captures the sublimity of the sacrament.
Accompanied by his wife, the artist Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith, and children, Smith traveled in Europe in 1851-1852, sketching in England, Wales, Scotland, Switzerland, Italy, France and Holland. During this time, he also studied old master paintings in museums, becoming deeply influenced by the French landscape artist Claude Lorrain. For the rest of his life, Smith and his family—which included his children, the artists Xanthus Russell Smith and Mary Russell Smith—lived at Edgehill, a castellated house and studio he designed and built in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania in 1856.
Although Russell Smith never achieved the fame of some of his better known Hudson River School counterparts, he was considered one of the most respected artists of his day, having achieved “a position of professional eminence among [his] contemporaries.” A member of the Board of Academicians at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he exhibited at prestigious venues, including the National Academy of Design, Boston Athenaeum, Artist’s Fund Society and 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition.