Daniel Ridgway Knight
Daniel Ridgway Knight was born 15 March 1839 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. He was a Quaker, and this religious training played a fine hand in his devotion to painting the French peasantry of his era. His work exudes soft yet rich, lush colors, with characters whose demure strength and humility formed as much a part of the beauty of his paintings as the landscape of his compositions.
He’d been trained to work in a hardware store in town, but he chose a different métier, although his working class roots never left him. He studied art initially in 1858 at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and then, in 1861, he arrived in Paris. His studies at the École des Beaux-Arts moved him beyond the fundamentals of his craft, and introduced him to professionals such as the French Classicist painter Jean-Louis Ernest Messonier.
The dream of an artist, working in an atelier, a studio, was fulfilled by Knight when he enrolled in the Paris atelier of a Swiss painter named Marc Gabriel Charles Gleyre. The opportunity was most fortunate; Gleyre taught future Impressionists Claude Monet, Pierre-August Renoir, and Alfred Sisley. Knight went on to develop enduring friendships with Renoir and Sisley that enriched him professionally and personally.
Knight would not adopt the Impressionist technique or style but he did, like the Impressionists, favor the “en plein air,” outdoor life, as subject matter, even though his pieces were often realized indoors. Knight achieved on canvas the luminous light of the French Impressionists in his own way, with his own style: less bright, less resplendent, but tranquilly lustrous. There is a quiet splendour to the blue tones of his skies, even the ones composed of gray hues.
The supreme occupation for Knight became depicting scenes from the life of the humble peasant in France. His tableaux tell stories of places, people, and times that no longer exist. Thus, his contributions to history are almost as great as those to the art of painting.
The outbreak of the American Civil War brought Knight home to Philadelphia to enlist in the Union Army. During his service, he continued to hone his artistic skills, sketching the faces of war: the haunted soldiers and the grief-stricken citizens. He became an artistic annotator of the Civil War, recording in his drawings battle scenes and the ravaged land. The actual pictures are lost to history, as are many of the works of Knight created prior to his Paris era that began after the Civil War.
In 1871, he wed one of his students, Rebecca Webster, and they set out for Paris. Knight never returned to America. He would spend the rest of his life dedicated to painting the French peasantry at work, doing chores, engaging in what he called “small capitalism”. He later established his home in Rolleboise, located about 40 miles west of Paris, on the Seine. There, he painted the serenely sensuous beauty that surrounded him.
His subjects were a bit idealized but, for the most part, the women depicted in his paintings were realistic and noble, vibrant and tender. They display the domestic life as one of silent fortitude during a time when women had far fewer choices in life and limited freedoms within their lives.
In his paintings, leisure, more than labor, was the emphasis of the activities of these women. They take a break from their work — in the fields, along the river, outside their houses, while tending to sheep — to rest, contemplate, congregate, and to appreciate the world around them. They exalt the simple chores of life and grant to them the serenity of industry informed by integrity. The details of each painting carefully echo the long-ago, a time that was not perfect, but it was nonetheless filled with blessings that were physical, spiritual, and aesthetic.
For Knight, the tranquil beauty of these females became almost an extension of the delicately radiant land around them. There is no sense of dire existence or poverty or victimhood for these females. Theirs is the life of loyalty to a job well done, contentment within a day’s work, and the joy of feeling close to nature, and close to the nature of being a woman.
Naturalness is what exemplifies the work of this artist. His sense of grace and the spirit of each woman guided each creation. The gardens, rivers, fields and skies are tangible but refined; and the women are quite lovely, even beautiful, but gracefully so. They possess a sense of calm fulfillment that makes the artistic rendering more than mere portraiture or historic (genre) painting.
There were waiting lists on both sides of the Atlantic, in France and in America, for these touching tableaux with softly shimmering rivers, dewy gardens, peaceful women, happily at work in their element — a province that the city of Paris would never be.
Daniel Ridgway Knight received professional awards and honors from France, Munich, and from his native country. His highest honors and awards were, in my opinion, the paintings that he produced to honor the French female peasant.
He died in Paris on 9 March 1924.