As a well established American ex-patriot artist actively exhibiting at the Parisian Salons during the 1870's and 1880's, Daniel Ridgway Knight carefully understood the direction of the naturalist outdoor figural painting as it was practiced by French artists during the same period. In order to capture the color nuances of his models, Ridgway Knight constructed a glass studio, separate from his house at Rolleboise (northwest of Paris beyond Poissy), where he could position them in direct lighting. In this ideal environment, protected from the elements but, at the same time, situated in the midst of it, Ridgway Knight was able to paint his models at differing times of the day and in all seasons, including the dead of winter. Whether Ridgway Knight was the first artist to have constructed a glass studio for himself is not known. What we know is that, at about the same time, well-known French Salon naturalists also used glass studios in which to construct their compositions. Jules-Alexis Muenier and P.A.J. Dagnan-Bouveret are two such artists. Ridgway Knight's observation of his models, often posed in actual peasant garments, led him to arrive at subtle harmonies of tone and color most effectively seen in a series of canvases dedicated to the theme of harvesters resting in the fields and enjoying each others' company while having a small meal.
In the early 1880s, in canvases inspired by Jules Breton, especially his Siesta (exhibited at the World's Fair of 1878) where workers in the field have stopped to rest under the shade of giant oak, Ridgway Knight's Noonday Repast centered on a group of relaxing figures completing a midday meal. In this scene of lazy contentment, after hours of hard work, Ridgway Knight centered his attention on a group of washer women of different ages who are finishing their noonday meal. The attention to the environment demonstrates how the painter used his talents as a landscapist to provide evidence of a specific location and time of day. In 1883, Ridgway Knight maintained a similar theme of rest after work. His figures - this time hay gatherers - are sprawled on the ground: one young woman relaxes against a small haystack, another intently looks at her companions with her head on hands and a small boy bites into a piece of bread. The figures are placed close to the frontal plain, in more intimate contact with a public audience, and seemingly with recognition of the ways in which Jules Bastien-Lepage, another Salon favorite, had located his peasant figures in his canvases at the end of the 1870s. This same tendency was maintained by Ridgway Knight in another work, Harvesters at Luncheon, (present location unknown) 1884. In this later canvas, a group of three women have just stopped their work and are resting in the foreground. To the left a series of haystacks reinforces the theme of the imagery and the specificity of the moment. The last two paintings reveal how central field labor was to Ridgway Knight at a moment when he was establishing himself as a major painter of peasant activity and as an artist fully understanding of the significance or rural life.
In The Harvesters Resting, Ridgway Knight had brought his figures close to the frontal plain, so that they have an imposing impact on the viewer. The variations in application of the paint, including a broad heavy brush stroke in the foreground and throughout the treatment of the hay, suggest a sense of directness and immediacy that was at marked variance with the smooth surface of most Salon entries. The delicate, light filled environment, and the suggestion of low overhanging clouds, reveal that Ridgway Knight had brought the innovations of the Impressionists into his focus on the workers of the field. The vigorous paint surface, and the large-scale of his relaxing laborers, were significant indicators that Ridgway Knight was following a new direction with this canvas, one influenced by the younger, independent Impressionist artists. This is, therefore, a seminal work suggesting his artistic influences and the ways in which Knight was receptive to new ideas at the beginning of the 1880s.
Ridgway Knight's career at this moment - the early 1880s - was also coming into sharp focus. His paintings were being actively compared by critics with works by Jules Breton, then a reigning Salon favorite and a well-recognized painter of field workers. In one case, a critic writing for the distinguished magazine L'Art (1884), paired the two artists in such a way that few would miss the obvious parallels in their works. While one painter - Knight - was working in a more realistic frame of reference, the comparison with a painter as well established as Jules Breton did much to reinforce the importance of Ridgway Knight's imagery and to place his work in the larger context of peasant painting in France. The date of The Harvesters Resting, 1883, occurs just at the moment when Ridgway Knight was coming into his own as a highly regarded painter in France, and as an artist who could sustain the mantle of modernity among the painters dedicated to the representation of field labor and the glorification of rural existence in a naturalist vein.
We are grateful to Dr. Gabriel Weisberg for preparing this catalogue entry.
Howard L. Rehs will include this work in his forthcoming Daniel Ridgway Knight catalogue raisonné.