A painter of grand-scale landscapes in the mid 19th century, Russell Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and emigrated with his parents in 1819 to western Pennsylvania where he grew up in Pittsburgh. His birth name was William Thompson Russell Smith. He was self-taught as an artist, and became a highly successful scenic designer, scientific illustrator, as well as panoramic landscape painter. He excelled at dramatic vistas with atmospheric effects intending to show the grandeur of nature, but he also painted small intimate landscapes, which some persons have thought he preferred. He began earning money as a painter of commercial signs. For fun, he did life-size portraits of famous heroes and then studied with portraitist James Reid Lambdin from 1829 to 1832. A trip to Europe introduced him to the work of Frenchman Claude Lorraine whose vast landscape paintings dwarfed human figures. In 1833, he became a scenic artist for the Pittsburgh Theater and then moved to Philadelphia, where he worked for six years at the Chestnut and Walnut Street theaters as a designer. He also did stage and curtain designs for the Philadelphia Academy of Music and other east-coast theaters and worked as a scientific draftsman for geological surveys in Pennsylvania and Virginia. He was married to an artist, Mary Priscilla Wilson. He exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876, and established the Mary Smith prize for paintings by female artists at the Pennsylvania Academy in memory of his artist daughter. His son, Xanthus, was also a successful painter.