Daniel Ridgway Knight was born into a strict Quaker family in 1839. At the age of nineteen, with the support of his grandfather, he enrolled in the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Through sharing classes with Mary Cassatt, Helen Corson, Thomas Eakins, Augustus Heaton, Howard Roberts, William Sartain, Earl Shinn and Lucien Cipron, the young artist became deeply connected with a generation of artists that would come to influence American art history in the late 1890s. Inspired by Cipron’s descriptions of Paris, Ridgway Knight sailed for France in early 1861 and enrolled in the École des Beaux-Arts and entered the atelier of Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. He returned to America to fight for his native city of Philadelphia during the American Civil War, but returned to France in 1871 and remained there for the rest of his life.
Upon his return to France, he began painting rural scenes populated by peasant figures. Upon meeting Jean-Louis-Ernst Meisonnier, he decided to take up residence in Poissy. ‘At the age of thirty-five, he had finally found his style, and his pictures of country folk at work, or more frequently at rest, in the fields or on the banks of the river Seine, were to bring him fame and success until his death fifty years later’ (R. B. Knight, Ridgway Knight: A Master of the Pastoral Genre, exh. cat., Cornell University, 1989, p. 3). Ridgway Knight’s peasants are often absorbed in isolated contemplation, luminous fantasies or idyllic diversions. His peaceful idealization and depiction of the detached tranquility of the peasants are what separate his paintings from those of his Barbizon contemporaries such as Jean-François Millet (please see lots 1 and 2).
Ridgway Knight not only painted these country folk, he knew them personally. On a number of occasions he was asked to act as godfather to the children of his models who were sure to receive a handsome gift from him when they married. Perhaps rather sentimentally, Ridgway Knight viewed peasants as content and happy, and truly believed that they found peace in their toil. In 1888, when accused of such sentimentality, he told George Sheldon: 'These peasants are as happy and content as any similar class in the world. They all save money and are small capitalists and investors. They enjoy life. They work hard, to be sure, but plenty of people do that. They love their native soil. In their hours of ease they have countless diversions: and the women know how to be merry in their hours of toil’ (R. B. Knight, ibid., p. 7).
We are grateful to Howard L. Rehs for confirming the authenticity of this work which will be included in his forthcoming Ridgway Knight catalogue raisonné.