Civil War Period Sketches by Noted American Artist and U.S. Navy Seaman – Xanthus Smith


Civil War Period Sketches by Noted American Artist and U.S. Navy Seaman – Xanthus Smith – These five pencil, tinted, wash drawings were completed by the noted American seascape and landscape artist, Xanthus Russell Smith, during the Civil War. Smith, a schooled artist, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of painters William Thompson Russell Smith and Mary Priscilla Wilson, he was educated at home by his mother, who also gave him drawing lessons. Between 1851 and 1852, he accompanied his parents and sister Mary Russell Smith on the family’s tour of Europe. After returning home, he studied chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania, before enrolling at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. He served in the United States Navy during the American Civil War, helping to maintain the blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. He saw little action, and sketched or painted hundreds of ships in a variety of media, including pencil and oil paint, both for official purposes and for his own pleasure. His father built a suburban villa, “Edgehill”, in Glenside, Pennsylvania, a couple miles outside of Philadelphia, that included a large artist’s studio. In 1879, Smith married Mary Binder, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia lumber dealer. The Smiths settled at Edgehill, where they raised their three children, Mary Russell “Polly” (1880–1938), Xanthus Russell Jr. (1886–1961), and George Russell (1890–1943). Smith also maintained a studio at 1020 Chestnut Street in Philadelphia for over thirty years, and painted until his death at age 90.

The group of four sketches, on a single sheet of period, heavy, drawing paper, were completed in the Savannah area, and executed by Smith, while he was in the service of the U.S. Navy, during the Civil War. The top sketch, in the four drawing series, depicts two large ships, with shoreline views of a large plantation style house, with two smaller, perhaps slave quarter cabins, behind the large house; this sketch is signed in the upper right corner – “X.S. June 14th 1864”. The second sketch from the top was labeled by Smith as “Scull Creek  S.C.”; this sketch shows two shoreline houses, as well as several fisherman, three in a boat about to be launched and two onshore. The third sketch is labeled, at the bottom of the drawing, “Tybee  Entrance to Savannah River”; depicted is a lighthouse, labeled “Lighthouse”,  a tall flag pole with a tinted flag and a large, round tower-like structure, labeled “Martello Tower” (During the War of 1812, the Tybee Island Lighthouse was used as a signal tower to warn Savannah of possible attack by the British. Though no such attack took place, “Martello Tower” was constructed on Tybee to provide protection in guarding the Savannah River.) The final sketch, signed at the bottom right corner “X.S.  June 14th  1864”, is labeled “Pulaski” (Fort Pulaski National Monument is located on Cockspur Island between Savannah and Tybee Island, Georgia; it was constructed in 1847.) This four sketch group measures as follows: Height – 8”; Width – 4.75”.

The fifth sketch, depicting three ships, is labeled, in the lower right area – “Hampton Roads  Va.” In the lower left area, the sketch is signed and dated – “X.R.S.  September 22d. 1864”. This sketch shows a steam vessel, with two smokestacks; beneath this vessel is labeled – “Snr  Admiral Dupont”. The larger or closer vessel in the middle of the sketch, is labeled – “Schnr.” To the far left, in the sketch, is a third, two-masted schooner, unlabeled. This sketch measures as follows: Height – 6.25”; Width – 10”.

There is currently an exhibit at the South Carolina Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum, entitled: “Xanthus Smith and Civil War Maritime Art” which features 47 of his stunning paintings and sketches, along with his paint palette and artists box. According to an online promotional summary of this exhibit – “The exhibit reveals the talents of this artist who spent his entire Civil War service in South Carolina, and examines how he turned those experiences into a successful career as a painter of war time naval battles. Looking at these works one can see his former artistic focus on landscapes along with his keen eye for the drama of military life, both in battle and camp, which earned him a national reputation as one of the foremost American military painters of the 19th century.” The remaining sketch of three sailing vessels, were completed by Smith, in the last years of the war, after Smith’s naval service; the three vessels are shown afloat in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Selected works

Smith did not actually participate in most of the battles he illustrated; instead, he generally consulted those who were present at the engagements. His first major work, The Monitor and the Merrimack — 1869, oil on canvas, 30 x 66 inches (76.2 x 167.6 cm.), Union League of Philadelphia — was critically acclaimed. His paintings were sometimes massive: Final Assault upon Fort Fisher, North Carolina — 1872–73, oil on canvas, 56 x 123-1/2 inches (142.2 x 313.7 cm.), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts — is more than 10 feet wide. There are seven known versions of his famous paintings of the June 19, 1864 naval battle between the USS Kearsarge and the Confederate ship Alabama, each with a unique composition.



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