Best known for his Hudson River School landscapes, James D. Smillie was born and raised in New York City where he attended the University of the City of New York (now New York University). Trained by his father, a prominent bank note engraver, young Smillie first began his career as a successful engraver specializing in vignettes. Around 1860, he made his first sketching trip to the Catskills where he made a pencil sketch inscribed ‘Meadow, Lexington, New York’ (Private Collection). He first exhibited a ‘landscape’ at the Brooklyn Art Association in 1863, but it was not until around 1865, after a two-year trip through Europe, that he devoted himself to landscape painting. He shared a studio in New York City for much of his career with his younger brother and fellow landscape painter George Smillie. The brothers often made sketching trips together- traveling to the Catskills in 1864, the White Mountains in 1867, Adirondacks in 1868 and 1870, and Yosemite in 1871. Smillie also traveled throughout the United States painting diverse sights in Maine, Florida, California, and Northern Michigan, in addition to his favorite sights in New York.
Smillie was elected an Associate of the National Academy of Design in 1868, and honored as full Academician in 1876. He was the founder of the American Society of Painters of Watercolors and served as its president from 1873 to 1879. He was also an active member of the Century Club and the New York Etching Club. He exhibited his works at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, National Academy of Design, Brooklyn Art Association, Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia 1876; Boston Art Club, Art Institute of Chicago, and the Corcoran Gallery. His work is held in major public collections including the Boston Museum of the Fine Arts, Corcoran Gallery, Amon Carter Museum, Oakland Museum of Art, National Academy of Design, and the Montclair Art Museum.
John Driscoll, All That is Glorious Around Us: Paintings From the Hudson River School (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1997)