When Daniel Ridgway Knight’s Hailing the Ferry (above, from 1888) first appeared in public, the gallery owners had to replace the carpeting in front of it, which had been worn out by admiring crowds. Born March 15, 1839, Knight studied alongside Thomas Eakins and Mary Cassatt at the PAFA, but it was in France that he truly found his ideal subject matter—the beautiful peasant girls going about their daily tasks in the bucolic scenes of the French countryside. Seeing Hailing the Ferry at the PAFA today, you’re struck first by its immense size. The two women are nearly life size. You next begin to visually wander around the scene taking in all the tiny details of the flowers and grasses. When looking through Knight’s oeuvre, it’s easy to be distracted by the continual appearance of the fresh-faced young ladies in all kinds of settings and moods, from the active to the pensive, and overlook the amazing technique that built up the landscape they so fetchingly inhabit.
Knight first went to France to study in 1861, returning to fight in the American Civil War in 1863. During the war, Knight sketched scenes of battle and the everyday life of the soldier. After marrying in 1871, Knight worked as a portrait painter until collecting enough funds to return to France once again. Once again in France, Knight became friends with the Impressionists Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir as well as Ernest Meissonier. Drawn to scenes of rural life, Knight later sought out Jean-Francois Millet, the painter of peasants who would later inspire Van Gogh. Millet’s too-realistic depiction of peasant life had the opposite effect on Knight. Knight chose to concentrate on the picturesque, joyful aspects of rural existence. It’s easy to say that Knight chose the easier path of pretty pictures over the harsher reality, but after seeing the bloodshed left in the wake of clashing armies, scenes such as Girl by a Stream, Flanders (above, from 1890) offered the perfect escape.
After gaining financial success, Knight built a home in Rolleboise, a suburb west of Paris. A garden terrace overlooking the Seine provided material for many of his paintings. Knight even built a glass studio so that he could paint from nature regardless of the weather. Knight’s Normandy Maid (above) basks in the warm glow of the twilight that he applied to all his works. Although he returns again and again and again to the theme of a young woman in nature in peasant dress, Knight does his best to give each of these subjects a sense of individuality. Knight allegedly found the subjects for his paintings from the local population, finding a seemingly never-ending supply of unblemished youth to stand in harmony with the never-ending abundance of natural abundance. It’s easy to see Knight as objectifying these young women in these scenes as mere props, but I think he found a real connection between the blooming fertility of these women and fertility of the landscape itself. In a world in which death had been a too-powerful reality, Knight choose life in all its promising ripeness.