Important American Paintings - September 2010
Mary Russell Smith
Three Chicks with Flowers, 1867?
Oil on canvas, 10 × 14 inches
Signed and dated at lower left: "Mary Smith."

RS 6503

Mary Russell Smith was born in Philadelphia, the daughter of the artists Russell Smith (1812–1896) and Mary Priscilla Wilson Smith (1819–1874); her brother Xanthus Smith (1839–1929) was a well-known marine painter. Maryís mother taught her to paint flowers, but at an early age she was drawn to sketch animals and insects directly from nature. She began to specialize in painting barnyard scenes peopled by chicks, which were avidly collected by Philadelphians. The early art critic Henry Tuckerman described her work as being "remarkable for grace, fidelity, and skill in delineation of the feathered tribeóher special branch."1 Mary exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts between 1859 and 1869, and from 1876 to 1878. She also exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1868. She suffered from chronic ill health and never married, leading a relatively isolated life at the family home, Edgehill, north of Philadelphia. Her brother attributed her premature death in 1878 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."2 Mary Smith kept a list in which she recorded the subjects and dimensions of her works, and the names of clients for whom she painted approximately 254 pictures of chicks and various animals. She was reputed never to have replicated a composition once it had been sold. This painting retains its original frame that bears the label of James Earle & Sons, a gallery and artistsí supply store in Philadelphia where Mary sold some of her paintings on a consignment basis. Only thirty-five pictures on the list were of the same dimensions as Three Chicks with Flowers, so it is tempting to identify it as the "Chicks & Flowers" that she painted in 1867 for "Mr. Earle."3


1. Henry Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life (New York: Putnam, 1867), p. 521.

2. Xanthus Smith to Mrs. Samuel Francis du Pont, September 1, 1878, Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Del.

3. For the artistís list of her paintings, see Robert W. Torchia and David B. Rowland, "Documents Pertaining to the Life of Mary Russell Smith," Old York Road Historical Society Bulletin 60 (2004), pp. 90–98.


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