Smith's parents were Charles Smith and Rose Anne Tierney (Smith).
Smith graduated from the University of Sydney in 1934. The following year he began teaching painting at the NSW Department of Education. By 1940 he had given up the idea of teaching painting for art history. That year he also joined the Communist Party, beginning a bitter opposition to Australia's participation in World War II. He married Kate Challis (d.1989) in 1941. In 1944 was appointed an education officer for the Art Gallery of NSW country art exhibitions. His first book, one on Australian art , Place, Taste and Tradition, appeared in 1945. He continued to teach until 1948 when he was awarded a scholarship for the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, University of London, studying there 1949-1951. His realization of what totalitarian-style communism was in eastern Europe resulted in his leaving the Communist party upon his return Australia where resumed his position at the Art Gallery. The following year Smith recieved a research scholarship at the newly-established Australian National University. He completed his doctorate there. Smith was appointed a lecturer University of Melbourne's Fine Arts Department in 1955, advancing to senior lecturer. Smith formed a group of seven painters, calling themselved the Antipodeans to exhibit their work in 1959. He wrote as the art critic for Melbourne newspaper, The Age, 1963-1966. The following year Smith and his wife moved to Sydney, appointed founding Professor of Contemporary Art and Director of the Power Institute of Fine Arts, University of Sydney. Bitter disputes toward the end of his career resulted in his retirement in 1977. Following a return to Melbourne Smith became the president of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, which he held until 1980. He also held a professorial fellow position in the department of Art History at the University of Melbourne. After Smith's first wife died, he married Margaret Forster in 1995.
Smith employed Marxist ideology in his teaching and writing.
European Vision and the South Pacific, 1768-1850; a Study in the History of Art and Ideas. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1960; Modernism's History: a Study in Twentieth-century Art and Ideas. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
Beilharz, Peter. Imaging the Antipodes: Culture, Theory, and the Visual in the Work of Bernard Smith. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997; Palmer, Sheridan. Hegel's Owl: The Life of Bernard Smith. Sydney: Power Publications, 2016; [obituaries] Beilharz, Peter. "Bernard Smith 1916-2011 Marxism and Politics." Art Monthly Australasia, Issue 250 (June 2012): 68.