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Monday, October 19, 2015

Xanthus Russell Smith

Civil War Engagement, 1865, Xanthus Russell Smith
(There's no indication of which engagement.)

Xanthus Russell Smith
I've always been something of an American Civil War buff. I can recall in history class in high school drawing out on the blackboard the execution of various Civil War battles, graphically explaining to my fellow students the various troop movements and Generals involved...and probably boring them to death. My dad was "into" the Civil War as well; and one of my fondest memories is when my wife, son, and I spent a weekend in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, early July, 1988, the 125th anniversary of the battle, as we followed the reenactment of the historic military con-frontation. The sun was hot, the weather humid, and it seemed as if the troops, both North and South, sort of "walked" through the battle ever so calmly as if to avoid breaking a sweat. There was lots of shooting but very few casualties. I did some "shooting" myself--quite a lot of videotape that weekend. It was an ideal medium for capturing all the "action," such as it was. In retrospect, as I see artwork involving various battle scenes of that war (and others), I've always wondered how artists were able to paint what they saw without getting their fool heads shot off. I mean, hell, it would be hard enough for a photographer, much less some guy with a bullet-proof smock and steel beret setting up his easel and canvas anywhere near a battlefield in order to paint the action. The fact is, of course, they didn't (at least not during the Civil War). They made due with photos, as well as written and oral eyewitness accounts in creating their combat paintings, sometimes decades after the battles took place. One such artist, quite adept at this type of painting, was a man from Pennsylvania named Xanthus Russell Smith (above, left).

Battle Between the Monitor and the Merrimack, Xanthus Russell Smith

The elder Russell Smith and his
granddaughter, Polly, ca. 1885.
Xanthus Russell Smith (usually just Russell Smith, for obvious reasons) painted mostly naval battles, but also a few reasonably adept landscapes, still-lifes, and even baby chickens (I kid you not). As artists go, he was, at best adequate, though some of his non-war paintings are quite well executed. Born in 1839 in Philadelphia, Xanthus and his sister, Mary Russell Smith, both became artists. She was the main one known for painting baby chicks (far more often than her brother). Their father, William Thompson Russell Smith, was also a highly successful artist, apparently teaching his talented offspring his trade.

Goslin Zoauve, 1890,
Xanthus Russell Smith
When the war came, Xanthus Russell Smith was the perfect age (in his early 20s) for combat. He spent the war in the U.S. Navy so he was intimately familiar with the ships of this transitional era in naval architecture, if not the actual conditions of naval combat. In fact, he saw little action. Smith was involved the Union blockade of South Carolina, which gave him lots of free time to sketch the ships which later he would paint in action. After the war, having previously studied at the University of Pennsylvania, before enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Smith married and moved back home to the villa his father had built on the outskirts of Philadelphia. The estate they called "Edgehill" had a large studio where the father and his two painting offspring worked together as a family. There Smith and his wife raised three (non-painting) children. His Zoauve infantry watercolor (left) is typical of his paintings in that medium not involving ships. Smith is said to have painted right up to his death in 1929 at the age of ninety.

U.S.S Kearsarge Sinking the Alabama, Xanthus Russell Smith
Walt Whitman, Xanthus Russell Smith
In the years following the war, Xanthus Russell Smith's most famous work was probably the U.S.S Kearsarge Sinking the Alabama (above), likely painted ten to twenty years after the war. Second only to the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac, the sinking of the CSS Alabama was probably the most important naval encounter of the war. In addition to naval battles, Smith also did a number of shipwrecks which he may have painted or, at least, sketched on location as with his Shipwreck (below). Smith was also quite adept at portraits though he seems to have painted very few of them. His portrait of Walt Whitman (right) is one of many painted by various artist, including Thomas Eakins, each striving to capture the essence of the colorful American poet.

Shipwreck, Xanthus Russell Smith
Smith's painted landscapes are less distinctive, but still interesting in that he painted them both large scale and quite small scale, as seen in his Ferry at the Old Mill (below), from 1896, and (below that) his Wild Strawberries, which might stretch some peoples' definition of a landscape, but differs from the one above it only in its incredible focus on minute details. Oh, and check the chicks at the bottom.

Ferry at the Old Mill, 1896, Xanthus Russell Smith
Wild Strawberries, Xanthus Russell Smith

Scene of Four Chicks Chasing a Caterpillar,
1882,  Xanthus Russell Smith


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