Daniel Ridgway Knight
Girl at the Side of the Lake • Watercolor on Paper 16-1/4" x 11-1/2"
Canton Museum of Art Permanent Collection • Gift of Mr. Ralph Cortell, 67.38
In 1861 Daniel Ridgway Knight, son of strict Quakers, heard a fellow student at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts talk about the art and fine wines of Paris. Soon he was off to sample the wares himself. He only returned to his native soil long enough to join the Civil War as it moved closer to his Philadelphia home, and pick out a fine bride from among his art students after the war.
Once married, he and Rebecca Webster set sail for a Paris honeymoon and never again returned to America. In France, Ridgway fell in love with the simple country peasants living around his cottage in Poissey. He brought them to life in hundreds of canvases now scattered through museums and private collections around the world
Focusing on peasant life was not an entirely new idea in 19th Century France. A colony of artists living in Barbizon (and therefore known as the Barbizon School) had long painted French peasant life. But they always showed them as epic figures engaged in class struggle or back breaking work. Ridgway saw them differently, “These peasants are as happy and contented 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.”
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Working in a glass studio attached to his cottage, Ridgway painted idyllic gardens and country landscapes behind his simply-dressed models. One of his paintings was even titled, Life is Sweet, and almost any of his other paintings could have been similarly named. Compare Girl at the Side of the Lake to The Gleaners by Jean-Francois Millet, a prominent Barbizon painter. The realism and colors are similar, but where Millet hid their faces as they bent over working in the field, Knight showed them as agreeable characters happy in their surroundings.
Daniel Ridgway Knight may have journeyed to France to sample the fine wines and high culture denied a simple Philadelphia Quaker boy. But, he stayed to enjoy the simple life of people just like him, happy with their lot in life and comfortable in their picturesque surroundings as seen through the glass windows of his country studio. A simple life even as the Modern Art movement began to stir in cosmopolitan Paris, just a few miles south.
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“Knight was supposed to become a clerk in a neighborhood hardware store. Instead he ended up living in France painting local peasants. Close, but no cigar.”
“He first sailed for France after hearing a fellow Philadelphia art student brag about the fine culture and wines of his native land. Goodbye Quakers. Hello Paris.”
“He did return to America long enough to fight in the Civil War and marry one of his art students. They enjoyed a long happy life together – in France.”
“His studio was a glass-enclosed room attached to his cottage in Poissey sur Seine. It was surrounded by gardens and very idyllic.”