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American & European Paintings - September 2008
 
 
painting
 
Mary Russell Smith
(American, 1842–1878)
Chicks with a Butterfly, 1878
Oil on canvas, 9 × 12 inches
Signed and dated lower left: “Mary Smith/1878”
RS 6467


Mary Russell Smith was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of the theater scenery and landscape painter Russell Smith (1812–1896) and his wife, the flower painter Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith (1819–1874). As a young girl, her favorite hobby was raising chickens, and at the age of fourteen she began to paint them so well that her family encouraged her to become a professional artist. No less an authority than Henry Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life (New York: Putnam, 1867), p. 521, praised her work as being “remarkable for grace, fidelity, and skill in delineation of the feathered tribe—her special branch.” Smith’s chicken paintings were in great demand among Philadelphia art patrons, and she exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts from 1859 to 1869, and from 1876 to 1878. She exhibited two paintings at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1868, and another in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. Smith suffered from chronic ill health and never married. In a letter to Mrs. S. F. Du Pont (1 September 1878, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Delaware), Xanthus Smith attributed his sister’s premature death to “over brain work,” noting that “she was so wrapped in her profession that it would have been impossible to induce her to lay it aside.”

This very typical composition with chicks in a barnyard investigating a butterfly is one of Mary Smith’s last works.


  


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