Born in Philadelphia and educated at the Pennsylvania Academy, Daniel Ridgway Knight joined the wave of young American artists who flocked to Paris in the late nineteenth century in search of advanced instruction. He studied with Charles Gleyre in the early 1860s and Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier in the 1870s, from whom he obtained the crisp precision and highly finished handling that characterize "Hailing the Ferry." His friendships with the then-radical painters Alfred Sisley and Pierre-Auguste Renoir also instilled a love of working 'en plein-air.' Academic craftsmanship and truth-to-nature are both on display to great effect in this painting. Although Knight carefully arranged the scene according to traditional compositional principles, the realism of the costumes and the landscape testify to close study of the physical world. Meanwhile, the atmospheric handling also evokes the feeling of being in nature.
Paintings of rural life were popular in late nineteenth-century France and America, as urbanization changed traditional ways of living. Although based on conventional principles of art-making, Knight's depictions of French peasant life share common ground with the 1880s explorations of rural Brittany by Paul Gauguin and the Nabi artists. Purchased by John H. Converse soon after its 1888 exhibition in Philadelphia, "Hailing the Ferry" was widely reproduced as a popular print and textile design.