Pleasant Peasants: Daniel Ridgway Knight


The art of American ex-pat Daniel Ridgway Knight (1839-1924) captures the beauty of spring and summer, as seen with his "At Poissy "˜Your Health'." Although he lived and painted in France for more than 52 years, Knight is still claimed as an "American artist," as is his artist son, Aston Knight, despite a birth and life in France.

1. With the support of his grandfather, Daniel Ridgway Knight began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1858, with Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt among his classmates. While Cassatt went on to become known as the only American to exhibit with the original Impressionists in France, Knight was actually the first of the Pennsylvania art peers to head to Paris, where he studied at l'Ecole des Beaux-Arts for two years. He also entered the atelier of Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre, under whom Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and James McNeill Whistler also studied.

2. A clear connection exists between Knight and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, of which he was a member until his death. Just what the original connection was, though, is up to some debate. While most Knight resources reference him founding the club in 1861, the club itself states he joined in 1864, four years after the club was formed by six other Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts students. And though he was a life-long member, he apparently wasn't always fond of attending meetings, since his wife "was commended by President Heaton for her firm insistence on Mr. Knight's attendance at Club meetings."

3. Working as a portrait painter during the honeymoon years of his marriage, Knight was able to save up enough money to move to France permanently. Once there, he befriended Renoir and Alfred Sisley and set to work on a historical painting of the 1358 uprising of French peasants. Unable to afford models, he used himself and his wife, who was pregnant with Aston, as the models for the fleeing nobles. According to some sources, the painting, "The Fugitive," was accepted to the Salon in 1873, making it his first Salon work. Other sources state he only began exhibiting in 1875, though.

4. Knight's work was in high demand throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, so year-round output was essential. To this end, he built "a studio of glass" attached to his house in Poissy. Henry Bacon wrote of the studio, "Here the artist can work in all weathers except the warmest, and in the winter with the snow upon the ground, is able to sit comfortably and finish pictures commenced in the summer, posing the model in a diffused light similar to that in which it had been begun by a country roadside." When the Knights moved in 1890 to a property overlooking the Seine, Knight built himself another glass studio.

5. During his career in France, Knight painted peasants almost exclusively. Yet he didn't like to depict their hardships; instead, he preferred to depict them during their happier moments. He believed that the peasants he depicted "are as happy and content as any similar class in the world. They all save money and are small capitalists and investors"¦ They work hard to be sure but plenty of people do that.

A larger version of "At Poissy 'Your Health'" is available here. Fans of Daniel Ridgway Knight should check out his ARC gallery; Rehs Galleries' virtual exhibition of sold works; his "Flatboat Fishing" (1877); and the ARC gallery for his son, Louis Aston Knight. Current Exhibitions featuring "Feel Art Again" artists:Alfred Sisley: Impressionist Landscapes (County Durham, England: through September 21, 2008)Monet to Picasso, feat. Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso (Salt Lake City, UT: through September 21, 2008)Mary Cassatt: Friends and Family (Shelburne, VT: through October 26, 2008)Philadelphia Treasures, feat. Thomas Eakins (Philadelphia, PA: August 2, 2008 - February 2009) "Feel Art Again" appears every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can e-mail us at with artist suggestions or details of current exhibitions.