American & European Paintings - September 2008
Russell Smith
(American, born Scotland, 1812–1896)
Flüelen, Lake Lucerne, Switzerland, 1852
Oil on canvas, 12 × 18 inches
Signed at lower left: “RS”
Signed, dated, and inscribed on reverse: “Flulen [sic], Lake Lucerne,/Russell Smith 1852”
RS 6498

Russell Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to a family of liberal intellectuals. In order to avoid arrest for supporting antigovernment social reforms, the family immigrated to the United States in 1819 and eventually settled in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Smith became interested in art and studied with the portraitist James Reid Lambdin (1807–1889). Smith painted theater stage scenery for the impresario Francis Courtney Wemyss in 1833, thus initiating a long career as America’s foremost painter of theater scenes and curtains. He moved to Philadelphia in 1835 to paint decorations for the Walnut Street Theater and began to exhibit his landscapes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1834, continuing to do so until 1889.

Smith married the artist Mary Priscilla Wilson in 1838, and their two children Xanthus Smith (1839–1929) and Mary Smith (1842–1878) both became accomplished artists. During the mid-1840s Smith accompanied geological expeditions to Virginia and western Pennsylvania as an illustrator, and began to take extended painting trips to the White Mountains in New Hampshire and to upstate New York. At this time Smith gradually abandoned his penchant for topographically accurate views and, influenced by the artists of the Hudson River School, began to paint more romantic landscapes. He took his family on a painting trip to Europe from 1851 to 1852, during which he visited many picturesque areas, major museums, and private art collections. After returning to the United States, Smith continued to divide his time between painting theater scenery and landscapes of the Susquehanna, Wissahickon, Pennypack, and Juniata river valleys. Many of these paintings he sold through local Philadelphia art galleries James S. Earle & Son and Charles F. Haseltine. The soft, diffused light so characteristic of Smith’s post–European visit landscapes reflect the influence of the great French master Claude Lorrain (1600–1682). Smith spent his last years at the family estate, Edgehill, in Glenside, living happily with his son’s family.

Flüelen is a municipality in the canton of Uri located on the shore of Lake Lucerne, Switzerland. Aided by sketches that he had made during his tour of the British isles and the Continent in 1851 and 1852, Smith continued to paint European views late into his career. This view of Lake Lucerne is noteworthy because the date suggests it was painted either in Switzerland or shortly after the artist returned to Philadelphia.

Smith was deeply impressed by the scenery around Lake Lucerne. He wrote that “to be here, and walk upon the banks of this Lake, through flowering meadows and up higher slopes under the beautiful foliage of the walnut, and look out upon the clear blue mirror and the enormous mountain masses [that] enclose it and rise to a height of six thousand feet terminating in grey bare cliffs and snow, is not only most enchanting but more than repays all the expense and trouble of getting to it.” (Quoted in Virginia E. Lewis, Russell Smith, Romantic Realist [Pittsburgh; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1956], p. 179.)


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