Browse Similar Masterworks

A Baptizing on the South Branch of the Potomac near Franklin, Virginia, 1844
William T.R. Smith (1812-1896)

View Artist Bio
Oil on canvas
12 x 18 inches
Signature Details: R.S. Inscribed on stretcher on reverse: A Baptizing on the South branch of the Potomac/near Franklin, Va. seen and painted by/Russell Smith in July, 1844.
Status: The Johnson Collection, Spartanburg, South Carolina


Private collection, Harrisonburg, Virginia.

W.T. Russell Smith achieved success as a landscape painter, theatrical designer, and illustrator of scientific works. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, he moved with his family to Ligonier, Pennsylvania, in 1819, and to Pittsburgh five years later. In 1827 he took up acting and scenery painting for a local thespian society. In 1831 he secured a post as curator of the Lambdin Museum, and took painting lessons with its founder, the artist James Reid Lambdin.

In addition to these commercial activities, Smith turned to landscape around 1835. Inspired by the work of Thomas Cole and Thomas Doughty, he became a devoted practitioner of the romantic-realist style of the Hudson River School. In contrast to the large canvases he produced for the theater, most of his landscapes are very small. Smith’s journal entries reveal that he was keenly observant of subtle changes in light and atmosphere, and took pains to record the exact weather conditions at particular times of day. He remarked that “the small landscapes were painted for sale because I felt in the mood for the subject taken up at the time; and they represent some arrangement of color, of light and shade or tone which something I had recently seen in nature suggested; they are therefore likely to the best representations of my mind or character as a painter and to be more original than subjects selected for another.” (Lewis, p. 135.) His studies of selected segments of nature, painted largely in plein air during the summer months, served as a repository of motifs that he incorporated into finished paintings in his studio.

A Baptizing on the South Branch of the Potomac shares with the best of Smith’s small paintings a sense of quiet and a serene and dignified stillness that transforms an uncultivated area of the wilderness into an American arcadia, inhabited by a tiny group of pioneers gathered at riverside for a baptism. The landscape view was composed from sketches Smith made during a geological expedition to Virginia with William Barton Rogers in the summer of 1844. The setting is discussed in Smith’s journal entry for July 23: “Shortly after quitting the mountain and about one mile from Franklin we came upon the South Branch of the Potomac a rappid and picturesque stream bordered by high rocks and fine trees. The valley of this stream is very narrow. The mountains shutting in very close to the water. Made a sketch.” (Lewis, p. 114.)

The figures may be based on sketches Smith made during a visit to Mount Vernon in 1836 for use in a larger painting, Baptism in Virginia (1836; Morris Museum of Art, see Chambers, p. 16). In contrast to the mountain folk and looming cliffs depicted here, the earlier landscape presents a well-dressed group of congregants on the banks of a scenic river for a mass baptism. NRS


Chambers, Bruce W. Art and Artists of the South: The Robert P. Coggins Collection. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1984.

Lewis, Virginia E. Russell Smith: Romantic Realist. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956.

For more information on this artist and work, please contact us.

This essay is copyrighted by Robert M. Hicklin Jr., Inc. and may not be reproduced or transmitted without written permission.

1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
Get Our Email Newsletter
Created by . Easy site updating through Backstage CMS.