In 1861, Knigh went to Paris to study at l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts under Cabanel, and to apprentice in the atelier of Charles-Gabriel-Gleyre. Two years later, he returned to America to serve in the Union Army. During the war, Knight sketched battle scenes, recording the war for history.
In 1871 Knight married Rebecca Morris Webster. After the wedding, he began working as a portrait painter in order to make enough money to return to France, which the married couple did in one year.
Once settled in France, in 1872, Knight befriended Renoir, Sisley and Meissonier. In 1874, strongly effected by the works of Millet, went to visit him. All these painters had big influence on his work. Other important influences were Bastien-Lepage and Jules Breton.
During the 1870's and 1880's, Knight focused on the peasant at work in the fields, or doing the day's chores. These paintings were made with subdued light and color and finely detailed figures. By the late 1890's, he began to paint the works that featured pretty local girls in his own garden, which overlooked the Seine.
Knight received a third class medal at the Salon in 1888 for "Hailing the Ferry", and a Gold Medal at the Munich Exhibition that same year. In 1889 he was awarded a Silver Medal at the Paris Exposition and was knighted in the Legion of Honor, becoming an officer in 1914. In 1896 he received the Grand Medal of Honor at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Daniel R. Knight died in Paris on March 9, 1924.