Danila Ivanovich Vassilieff was born in 1897 at Kagalnitskaya, near Rostov-on-Don, Russia. His father was a Cossack and his mother Ukrainian. He studied mechanical engineering at a technical school at Novocherkassk and at a military academy in Saint Petersburg. During World War I and the Russian Civil War, he served with a Don Cossack cavalry regiment. He was captured by the Red Army at Baku in April 1920, but escaped by motorbike and made his way to China via Armenia, Persia, India and Burma.In May 1923 in Shanghai he married Anisia Nicolaevna, a fellow refugee; then they set out for Australia, arriving in Townsville, Queensland in July.They bought a sugar-farm at Yuruga, located near Ingham. By 1928 he was working as a railway labourer at Mataranka, Northern Territory. It was here that he began to paint, using a child's paint set. In 1929 he separated from his wife, was naturalized, and left Australia. He travelled to Paris and then on to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where in 1930 and 1931 he had his first formal studies in art, under Dimitri Ismailovitch, a specialist in Byzantine mosaics and frescoes. From 1932 to 1935 he worked and exhibited in the West Indies, South America, England, Spain and Portugal.
n October 1935, he settled in Sydney. He painted inner-city street scenes, still lifes, portraits and landscapes, and exhibited twice at the Macquarie Galleries.