Renowned for his detailed and realistic Civil War marine paintings, Xanthus Smith was born in Philadelphia, into a highly accomplished family of artists. He was the son of the successful theatrical and landscape painter, Russell Smith, and Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith, who specialized in still life and floral genres. Both parents gave Xanthus his early training. From 1851 to 1853, the family (including Xanthus's sister Mary, who was also an artist) traveled to Europe, where in the classical tradition of the Grand Tour, they studied, sketched, painted, and visited art collections, museums, and important sites. During their time in London, Xanthus studied at the Royal Academy.
In 1854, the Smiths moved to a country home called Edge Hill near Philadelphia; Xanthus sold house views of neighboring estates among his first paintings. He continued his formal training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1856 to 1858 and studied at the University of Pennsylvania medical school during that time as well.
In November 1862, he enlisted in the Union Navy and served as a captain's clerk aboard the USS Wabash, the flagship of the blockading squadron at Charleston and Port Royal. Smith's talent for military draftsmanship was immediately recognized by his officers, and he was assigned to create sketches and small paintings of the Wabash and other vessels. Smith took an eleven-month leave in 1863 to assist Admiral Samuel DuPont in compiling a book on monitors. The following year, he returned to active service aboard the steamer, USS Augusta. Again, the artist drew and painted a variety of ships--including blockade runners and ironclads--as well as the naval activity that he observed. Smith later composed many studio landscape and marine paintings from the storehouse of drawings and sketches rendered during his military travel.
Upon discharge from the service, Smith returned to Philadelphia, dividing his time between the city, Edge Hill, and occasional travel in Pennsylvania and north to the Maine seacoast. During his career, he was admired for creating a wide range of landscapes--from naval subjects to pastoral river views. Between 1866 and 1876, he painted fifteen large-scale paintings that he called the "Civil War Series," representing the major naval engagements of the war.
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