Smith was born in Brechin, Angus. From a well-to-do family, he attended the Royal Academy Schools in London and studied under Joseph Nollekens before going to Italy. On his return journey, Smith travelled via Antwerp, where he made several paintings in the style of Rubens. In 1827 Smith set up as a portrait painter in Edinburgh, using Raeburn's old studio in York Place. Smith lived in the city for the rest of his life and was elected to the Royal Scottish Academy in 1829. His style was influenced by Raeburn.