James David Smillie was a son of the engraver, James Smillie, and learned his trade from his father with whom he worked until he visited Europe in 1864. He also practiced etching, lithography, aquatint, drypoint, and landscape painting. He was a founder of the American Watercolor Society in 1866, and he was its president from 1873 to 1879. He was also a member of the Century Association from 1877 to 1909 and a founder of the New York Etching Club in 1877. He was a teacher at the National Academy of Design in 1868. He was elected an associate member of the Academy in 1868 and a full member in 1876.
He exhibited at the Centennial Expo in Philadelphia in 1876, the Brooklyn Art Association, and the National Academy of Design from 1864 to 1898.
He was an illustrator for Picturesque America but was particularly known for his paintings of mountain scenery. He traveled widely, painting in the Sierras, Adirondacks, Rocky, White, and Catskill Mountains.
His work has been preserved at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Amon Carter Museum, the Oakland Museum of Art, and the New York Public Library. His works are also represented in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Carnegie Library.