Russell Smith was born in Glasgow, Scotland, and emigrated with his parents in 1819 to western Pennsylvania where he grew up in Pittsburgh. He was self-taught as an artist, and became a highly successful scenic designer, scientific illustrator, as well as panoramic landscape painter.
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.
Married to artist, Mary Priscilla Wilson, he had paintings exhibited at the Philadelphia Exposition of 1876. He 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.