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.”