Daniel Ridgway Knight born into a strict Quaker home in Philadelphia, Knight was groomed for work in a local hardware store. Knight chose art instead, enrolling in 1858 in the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where his fellow students included Mary Cassatt, Thomas Eakins, William Sartain, and Everett Shinn. A student from France, Lucien Grapon, plied Knight with stories of fine classes and fine wine to be found in Paris. After helping to establish the Philadelphia Sketch Club in 1861, Knight sailed for France that same year, the first to do so among his Philadelphia peers. In Paris, Knight enrolled in the Atelier Gleyre and the classes of Alexander Cabanel at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While with Gleyre, Knight began long-term friendships with the young Impressionists Alfred Sisley and Auguste Renoir, an unusual relationship for an aspiring history painter. As the American Civil War moved closer to Philadelphia in 1863, Knight returned home to enlist.
Knight spent the next ten years in Philadelphia, continuing his studies after the war with fellow Sketch Club members or on his own. Daniel Ridgway Knight exhibited historical paintings but, for money, painted portrait paintings and taught in his studio. In 1871, Knight married one of his students, Rebecca Webster, and set out for his beloved Paris on his honeymoon. Although Daniel Ridgway Knight had over fifty productive years ahead of him, he never returned to America. By 1874, Knight had decided to specialize, almost exclusively, on the French peasantry, their (usually her) environment at home and in the open air of the fields. The precedent for this choice had already been set decades before by the Barbizon school, particularly by Jean-Francois Millet. Unlike Millet, Knight seemed disinclined to strike the epic note in his paintings with depiction of peasants, most of whom are engaged in leisurely rather than laborious activities. In this respect, Daniel Ridgway Knight was peculiarly American, an outsider to the heroic struggle and displacement of the French farmers throughout the industrial revolution in France. From his cottage in Poissey with its glass-enclosed studio and gardens, Knight was able to work in the "open" protected from the weather in an aesthetically controlled environment. His clients, in France and America primarily, filled his waiting lists because his moist gardens and distant rivers were pleasingly rendered, but also because his models filled a sentimental need for an agreeable human reference. In 1888, Knight told author and critic George Sheldon, "These peasants 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."