New Jersey Remembered: A Seventy-fifth Anniversary; Philadelphia Collection 75; October 2005
Xanthus Smith
(American, 1839–1929)
Cape May Beach
Pencil on paper, 6 × 9 1/4 inches
Signed and dated at lower left: “Cape May. N.J./XS [monogram] July 5 th 1871—”

Xanthus Smith was born in Philadelphia, son of the noted landscape and theater scenery painter Russell Smith (1812–1896) and artist Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith (1819–1874); his sister was the artist Mary Russell Smith (1842–1878). Russell Smith later explained that he gave his son an unusual first name so that he would not be confused with John Rowson Smith (1810–1864), an artist he considered to be “a great scamp.”1 Xanthus Smith was educated at home by his mother, who also gave him drawing lessons. As a youth he was attracted to the sea and made numerous sketches and watercolors of ships.

Smith accompanied his family on an extensive European tour from 1851 to 1852, and he carefully studied the works of art that he saw there. After returning to Philadelphia he began to paint in earnest. He registered to draw at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts around 1858, where he first exhibited a landscape in 1856, and continued to show his paintings there until 1887. Smith enlisted in the Navy at the outbreak of the Civil War and served two tours of duty as a captain’s clerk. His small, meticulously detailed drawings of battleships and various vessels were so successful that he continued to paint and exhibit them after the war. His depictions of major battles between the new ironclad ships, such as The “Monitor” and the “Merrimack” (1869, Union League of Philadelphia) and The “Keasarge” and the “Alabama” (1869, private collection), were greeted with great critical acclaim, and by the 1876 Centennial Exhibition Smith was considered America’s foremost painter of Civil War naval engagements.

After the Centennial Exhibition art patrons began to favor recent European styles, and Smith’s work went out of fashion. Financially independent, he married in 1879 and settled into a comfortable domestic existence at the family residence Edgehill. Smith began to spend summers on Mount Desert Island, Maine, in 1877 and later bought a summer home at Casco Bay; John Wilmerding has observed that Smith was “almost an artist-in-residence on the island in the eighties and nineties.”2 He produced local views of the Pennsylvania countryside and European landscapes that were apparently based on the sketches his father had made in the early 1850s and sold many of them through the Earle and Haseltine galleries in Philadelphia. During the late 1880s Smith renewed his early interest in photography and devoted much time to writing technical articles on the subject. After 1900 he turned his attention to portraiture and figure subjects, and he continued to paint well into the 1920s. Smith died at Edgehill and was buried in the family plot at Ivy Hill Cemetery in Philadelphia.3

Smith would certainly have felt a special affinity for the Jersey Shore because of his great love of the sea and ships. His first documented presence there was in 1868, when he recorded that he had finished a small “study of open sea with a barque in the middle distance off Cape May” (location unknown). He continued to frequent the popular resort and executed three more small oil paintings of Cape May whose present whereabouts are unknown: Shore Scene, Cape May NJ(1870), Shore Scene, Cape May with Steam Boat, Bath Houses, Cottages, etc., and Shore Scene, Cape May NJ Figures Principal (both 1871).4 The pencil sketch Cape May Beach was clearly related to one of the latter two paintings. In his unpublished autobiography “An Unvarnished Tale,” Smith related that in 1876 the Pennsylvania Rail Road Company commissioned him to execute a huge advertising sign that was displayed on Elm Avenue, facing the main entrance to Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. He described “a view of the bathing beach at Cape May, the Stockton Hotel appearing in the background and the beach thronged with bathers, and lookers on as it was at the bathing hour” and added, “I was perfectly familiar with my subject, as I was at that time spending some time each summer at that resort, and painting beach scenes with bathers.”5

Later in life Smith vacationed in Atlantic City with his family. Three Figures with a Rowboat, Atlantic City, New Jersey, is stylistically very similar to the dated Atlantic City, New Jersey, and was probably done at the same time in 1897. Smith often recorded such picturesque elements in his sketchbooks and incorporated them into his oil paintings. He no longer kept a detailed list of his work, however, so it is not possible to determine whether these sketches were related to specific paintings.


1. Philadelphia Telegraph, April 1892; quoted in Virginia E. Lewis, Russell Smith: Romantic Realist (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956), p. 66. John Rowson Smith, son of the noted art teacher John Rubens Smith, was a theatrical scene painter and panoramic artist.

2. John Wilmerding, The Artist’s Mount Desert: American Painters on the Maine Coast (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 144.

3. For studies of Xanthus Smith see Robert W. Torchia and David B. Rowland, The Smith Family Painters: A Series of Exhibitions [exh. cat.] (Collegeville, Pa.: Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, 1998), pp. 14–19; Robert W. Torchia, The Smiths: A Family of Philadelphia Artists, Philadelphia Collection, vol. LXIV (Philadelphia: Schwarz Gallery, 1999), pp. 40–59; and Robert W. Torchia, Xanthus Smith and the Civil War, Philadelphia Collection, vol. LXV (Philadelphia: Schwarz Gallery, 1999).

4. Xanthus Smith, List of Paintings, Smith Family Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C.

5. Xanthus Smith “An Unvarnished Tale,” Smith Family Papers, Archives of American Art, Washington, D.C., p. 424.

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