Daniel Ridgway Knight was an American artist who became very prominent working in France. He became famous for his paintings of day-to-day peasant life. These people were depicted in a relatively happy and content life, as opposed to often pessimistic and hardship-plagued perspectives of peasantry provided by other artists, such as Jean-Francois Millet, who was also an influence on Knight's artwork.
Daniel Ridgway Knight was born in March 1839 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. His family was from the Religious Society of Friend, also known as Quaker. He began to work in a hardware store in his teens, following his strict and hardworking family's customs. But soon, young Knight manifested his interest in becoming an artist and enrolled in the local art school.
In his early education, Knight studied at the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts. While in the institution, he was classmates with Realist painter Thomas Eakins and Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt. Many important late 19th century American artists graduated in the Pennsylvania School, and later, under Eakins' direction, it became the most forward-thinking Academy of its time.
During Knight's time as a student there, a French peer named Lucien Grapon filled his head with stories about the Parisian bohemian life and the exciting innovations of the young artists living in the city. After setting up the Philadelphia Sketch Club with his peers in 1861, he left for France. He was the first student of the School that pursued further education in Europe.
In 1861, Knight moved to France and studied at the École des Beaux-Arts of Paris, under distinguished painter Alexandre Cabanel. Cabanel was a very respected Academic painter, second only to Bouguereau. While studying in the École, he also participated in Charles-Gabriel Gleyre's atelier. Later, he was also instructed by Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier.
In this way, Knight's short stay in Paris allowed him to benefit from both: 1. the long tradition of French painting in the severe classes of Cabanel, which became the foundation for the peasant scenes of Daniel Ridgway. 2. getting acquainted with the revolutionary spirit and freer manner of Modern painters such as Alfred Sisley and Auguste Renoir.
In 1863, Knight returned to Philadelphia to serve the Union Army in the Civil War. While fighting in the war, Knight often captured human emotion and facial expressions by sketching his brothers' arms. His artwork was also significant as historical documents, for he also sketched several battle scenes.
The American painter aspired to create historical pictures based on his introduction to painting genres in the École des Beaux-Arts. In the art shows he participated in, he favored his historical work, but at the same time, he took portrait commissions from the local bourgeoisie and gave classes in his workshop to make ends meet.
Knight was one of the earliest members of the Philadelphia Sketch Club, where he often showed works that depicted scenes from the Opera, mythology, and the Civil War. In 1871, he married Rebecca Morris Webster, who was one of his students. After the wedding, Knight began to focus his work on portrait painting in order to return to France since portraiture was a rather more lucrative field. The artist never returned to his home country again.
Knight moved back to France in 1872. Once settled, he contacted his friends Alfred Sisley, William Wordsworth, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, all of whom became influences on Knight's artwork. Later, the artist worked in Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier's private studio. During this time, his rather Academic and illustrative work took a Realist turn since he was painting and sharing his artistic thoughts with the Barbizon School painters.
Knight later moved to Rolleboise, where he established himself in his new home and studio. There, he built a glass studio outside his house, which enabled him to paint outside even on winter's coldest days. The artist spent many days in this glass structure, trying to register his immediate reactions to the surrounding climate and taking inspiration from the local landscapes.
One of Knight's favorite painting subjects was peasant women in the outdoors, which he became hugely acclaimed for and was considered his "trademark." He differed dramatically from the painter Jean-Francois Millet. The Realist Millet greatly influenced Knight to adopt this subject and was an artist that depicted these scenes in an ordinary way but with a dramatic lighting effect, bringing forth the dignity and difficulty of labor. Daniel Ridgway Knight's oeuvre, on the other hand, shows peasants at leisure time.
In some of his paintings of girls, the constants in his representation of the country life, the viewer can infer the gender roles and see them interacting with each other, showing that he had some intimacy with his subjects and even became close to some of them. The Harvesters Resting, Maria and Madeleine On The Terrace, and Country Women Fishing On a Summer are a few of the many artworks that the painter crafted based on his direct observation of women's interaction in the region.
Images such as A Passing Conversation, A Pensive Moment, A Discussion Between Two Young Ladies, Picking Flowers, and Far Away Thoughts are all stellar examples of the work for which he is known. In the quest of depicting these moments of contemplation, jolliness, or distraction, it's possible to sense both the American painter's optimism for rural life activities and his treatment of weather atmospheric lighting.
Still indebted to his Academic master Cabanel, as it's noted on the anatomy accuracy and the smooth treatment of the skin, he learned with the Barbizon painters the importance of working with color to capture nature's effect with fidelity. One of these paintings, the Un Deuil, exhibited in 1882 at the Paris Salon, brought Knight his first significant recognition. He received several awards throughout his life.
Knight was awarded the third class medal at the 1888 Salon for Hailing the Ferry and a gold medal at the same year's Munich Exhibition. In the next year, he received a silver medal from the same event. He contradicted his usual choice of using a smaller scale; the painting was done on a 163.8 x 211.1 cm easel and was hailed by the German and French critics. The final treatment and attention to detail show the lessons that the American artist learned from Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier.
He also received a silver medal at the Exposition Universelle in 1889, Paris. In the mid-1890s, the painter struck a deal with Knoedler's Art dealers, which guaranteed suitable venues for his later art pieces. In 1893, he was Knighted in the Royal Order of St.Michael of Bavaria, in Munich. He also received the highest honor from the French government, the Legion of Honour, and became an officer in 1914. In 1896, he was awarded the Grand Medal of Honor from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
Daniel Ridgway Knight died on March 9th, 1924, in Paris. Despite exhibiting a certain idealism regarding rural work throughout his life, the artist made a compromise of depicting ordinary people in art. Even though he doesn't have the same dramatic impact as Millet's brush, his work is a unique insight into French country life's playful activities.
Recently, the auction house Christie's put up his paintings for sale. Among many of his famed peasant scenes, one of them sold for $337,000. Daniel Knight's art is collected by institutions such as the Willow Gallery and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.