Smit was born in Lisse. He received his first commission from Hermann Schlegel at the Leiden Museum to work on the lithographs for a book on the birds of the Dutch East Indies. In 1866 he was invited to Britain by Philip Sclater to do the lithography for Sclater's Exotic Ornithology; he prepared a hundred images for the book.
He also did the lithography for his friend Joseph Wolf's Zoological Sketches, as well as Daniel Giraud Elliot's monographs on the Phasianidae and Paradisaeidae. Beginning in the 1870s, he worked on the Catalogue of the Birds in the British Museum (1874–1898, edited by Richard Bowdler Sharpe), and later on Lord Lilford's Coloured Figures of the Birds of the British Islands.
Smit contributed illustrations to John Gould's books on birds of different parts of the world, along with leading Victorian era wildlife artists including Wolf, Edward Lear, William Hart, Henry Constantine Richter and J.G. Keulemans. He also provided many of the illustrations of dinosaurs and other fossil creatures for the popular book Extinct Monsters (1892) by Henry Neville Hutchinson.
- Skipwith, P (1979). The great bird illustrators and their art, 1730-1930. A & W Publishers.
- (in Dutch) L.B. Holthuis, Leiden, (1958, 1995) Rijksmuseum van Natuurlijke Historie, 1820 - 1958. page 47. reprint manuscript, PDF.
- Wheye, Darryl; Kennedy, Donald (2008). Humans, Nature, and Birds: Science Art from Cave Walls to Computer Screens. Yale University Press. p. 137.
- "Joseph Smit". Cornell University. Retrieved 1 May 2014.
- Campbell, Bruce; Lack, Elizabeth (1985). A Dictionary of Birds. London: T & AD Poyser. p. 301.
- "Soffer Ornithology Collection Notes". The Ornithology of the Straits of Gibralter (sic) by Leonard Howard Lloyd Irby. Amherst College Library. Retrieved 1 May 2013.
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