The son of Scottish-American artist Russell Smith, marine painter Xanthus Smith was born in Philadelphia where he would spend the majority of his life as an artist. While studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, he also attended art classes at the Pennsylvania Academy. He would later attend the Royal Academy in London to further hone his artistic skills.
In 1862, at the outbreak of the American Civil War, Smith enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a captain's clerk. Later, while serving aboard the Union warship U.S.S. WABASH, he was appointed official artist under Admiral S.F. Dupont. Discharged in 1864, he began to paint on a large scale the important naval battles of the Civil War for which he is best remembered today.
The importance and public fascination with the battle scenes Smith recorded while they were still fresh in the collective memory continues to survive to today. The United States Naval Academy at Annapolis displays his "Battle of Mobile Bay" and what is probably his best known work "ALABAMA and KEARSARGE" resides in the permanent collection of the Mariner's Museum in Newport News, Virginia.