Daniel Ridgway Knight: America's Forgotten Painter
While America isn't historically known for it's artists, there are some that have excelled and been famous in their time. Benjamin West and Charles Wilson Peale were known for their historical paintings and portraits of Founding Fathers and early presidents, as well as their students who followed with a similar style of art. Daniel Ridgway Knight, an artist highly successful in his day, aspired to be one of the historical painters that made America's scenes famous. But his life and style ended up taking a distinctly different direction, and he spent most of his life in France painting it's people and scenes.
Knight was born in 1839 in Philadelphia to a strict Quaker family and worked from an early age in a hardware store. However, he chose to study art instead of continuing in that line of work, beginning in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where several of his fellow students were destined to become famous. Knight next moved to Paris to study painting at the Atelier Gleyre and while there fell in love with the Parisian culture and befriended several prominent Impressionist painters, including Pierre Auguste Renoir.
The beginning of the American Civil War called Knight back from Paris to enlist, and the following ten years were spent in Philadelphia. During his enlistment he was constantly practicing, mastering the art of capturing faces and expressions while also sketching battlefields and historical scenes. Though he aspired to be appreciated for his historical paintings like so many of the great American artists before him, Knight wasn't yet famous enough so made a living painting portraits and teaching art lessons.
After his marriage in 1871 to a student, Rebecca Webster, the Knights honeymooned in Paris not realizing that they would never return to America. With over fifty years left to his career, Knight loved France so much that he never looked back but chose instead to focus on the French peasantry, especially young women, as his subject matter.
Clients were always on his waiting list to claim a painting of the idyllic French countryside with it's native peasants in various work, leisure, or social activities. The studio he worked in was a glass house looking over a garden and the Seine river. The setting was frequently included in his paintings since it affored him the opportunity to observe the beautiful area in every season and to work in an outdoor environment, even in winter.
Though Knight lived and worked in France during the Impressionistic period and befriended many of the artists in that school, his style was never influenced by them very much. In his later years some of his paintings got a bit closer to that style, but he was still very much a realist in his work.
In his lifetime Knight became an acclaimed painter in many respects, winning various international acknowledgements. Medals and awards in Munich, Paris, and his hometown, Philadelphia all came later in his career, and he was knighted as an officer in the Legion of Honor in 1889.
Daniel Ridgway Knight died in March of 1924 in Paris, the city that he had chosen as his home.
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