Daniel Ridgway Knight, born into a strict Quaker family in Philadelphia in March 1839, spent much of his teenage years pursuing the artistic talent he so evidently exhibited. At the age of 19, with the support of his grandfather, he managed to attend the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. With classmates such as Mary Cassatt, Helen Corson, Thomas Eakins, Augustus Heaton, Howard Roberts, William Sartain, Earl Shinn and Lucien Crépon, he was well ensconced with a generation that would individually come to influence American Art History of the late 19th century. Nevertheless Ridgway Knight, primarily inspired by Crépon's descriptions of Paris, sailed for France in early 1861 and enrolled in the Ecole des Beaux-Arts as well as in the atelier of Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. He returned to America in 1864 to fight for his native city of Philadelphia during the American Civil War only to return to France in 1871, where he remained the rest of his life.
Following his return, he began painting rural scenes inspired by peasant figures. After meeting Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier, he decided to take 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, Cornell University, 1989, ex. cat., p. 3). One finds that 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.
Ridgway Knight not only painted these country folk, but he also knew them personally. On a number of occasions he was asked to act as a godfather to the children of his models who, if they later married, were sure to receive a handsome gift from him. Perhaps rather sentimentally, Ridgway Knight viewed peasants as content and happy folk 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, p. 7).
We are grateful to Howard L. Rehs for his assistance in preparing this catalogue entry.
Howard L. Rehs will include this work in his forthcoming Daniel Ridgway Knight catalogue raisonné.