Born in Paterson, New Jersey Smith took his early training at the Art Institute of Chicago and later at the Cincinnati Art Academy under Frank Duveneck. For a time he served as staff artist for the CINCINNATI ENQUIRER and in 1898 gained national acclaim for his front line sketches during the Spanish-American war.
In 1906 he emigrated to California where he became an inveterate explorer, admirer and painter of the region's scenic mountains and seashore. Jack Wilkinson Smith made friends with many of his fellow artists. He was a founding member of the California Art Club and along with Edgar Payne and William Wendt one of the founders and most admired members of the renowned Laguna Beach Art Association.
In the 1920s, Smith devoted several years to the founding of the celebrated Biltmore Salon, one of California's most important and successful art galleries. He is noted as one of the finest artistic interpreters of the California outdoors and is credited, along with Edgar Payne, with creating the continuing interest in paintings of California's majestic mountains and spectacular coastline.