Nicholas Chevalier

The exploration of the southern hemisphere by the major European powers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to a policy of colonisation in many of the lands in this part of the world. Especially was this seen in Australia and New Zealand where, within a century of the arrival of the British explorers, there were thriving communities in both countries.

Among them was Melbourne, with its important farming interests, and, by the mid-nineteenth century, its developing secondary industries. As might have been expected, its society was raw and vigorous, its growth characterised by struggles between opposing political and financial sections. In such a society the refinements of life were often overwhelmed by the tensions which the fledgling city generated. And it was into this society that Nicholas Chevalier arrived.

NICHOLAS CHEVALIER Rangitikei from Westoe 1868
watercolour 255 x 355 mm. (National Art Gallery of New Zealand)

Nicholas Chevalier was born in Russia, the son of a Swiss father and a Russian mother. The family returned to Switzerland in 1845 and the young Chevalier began his studies by attending art classes in Lausanne, and later, studying architecture in Munich. He then went to London and learnt lithography from VV.H.L. Gruner. It was this that changed the direction of Chevalier's career.

A visit to the 1851 Great Exhibition where he saw examples of the work of English water colourists directed Chevalier's interests towards watercolour painting; and in 1852 he exhibited two landscapes in the Royal Academy. His father, perceiving his son's talents, sent him to Rome for intensive studies. For most of the years 1853 and 1854 he was studying watercolour painting in Rome.

Rather abruptly, Chevalier left for Australia. According to his wife Caroline, the move was prompted by his receiving an offer to work on the Melbourne Punch. Another source suggests that Chevalier's father required his son to go to Australia to oversee the family investments there. For whatever reason, he arrived in Melbourne on 25 December 1854.(1)

NICHOLAS CHEVALIER Let it Burn I'm Only a Lodger 1855
cartoon from Melbourne Punch

Chevalier began work as a cartoonist for the Melbourne Punch soon after arrival and his talents were fully employed in commenting on the lively and vigorous political life in the young state. His caricatures show that he was well versed in literature, and very aware of the classical tradition in art: but the early cartoons were rather awkward in composition; and the drawing, especially of the figure, was rather weak. The ideas, by contrast, were inventive: there was a sophistication about them that was rather surprising in Melbourne in the 1850s.

At the same time, Chevalier continued his interest in landscape painting, now using both oils and watercolours. In 1864 he won a competition organised by the state government for 'the best picture by an artist in Australia', for which he received £200. The winning work, The Buffalo Ranges of Victoria, is an oil painting and in style reminds one of Dutch landscapes of the seventeenth century.(2) It is rather laboured, and although the colour is rich, it is a somewhat gloomy work, relying for effect on the great contrast between strongly-lit areas and dark shadows. To be fair, it has features which make it a painting that is distinctly colonial: though many of them are comparatively superficial. Lt can best be regarded as a transitional work and one in which Chevalier's personality has yet to emerge more clearly.

NICHOLAS CHEVALIER Punch's Illustrations of the Poets 1857
cartoon from Melbourne Punch

In 1865 Chevalier decided to visit New Zealand. The reasons for his doing so are not clear: but Caroline later wrote that he had resolved to visit 'the Switzerland of the Southern Hemisphere'. In addition, there might have been more practical reasons for wanting to visit the South Island. Dunedin at that time was one of the most progressive and wealthy cities in Australasia and it is possible that Chevalier considered that he could combine his interest in travel with his need for money in making this trip. Upon his arrival in Dunedin he set to work immediately, His reputation was such that the Otago Provincial Council awarded him a grant of £200 to produce paintings for exhibition which would help publicize the colony and province.(3)

Chevalier's work in Otago is confined to drawings or watercolours and they are rather remarkable on two points. In the first place, one is amazed to see the amount of work he produced under the most trying conditions. In style, the landscapes made at the outset of his journey are closely connected to the work he had been doing in Australia. The compositions are rather tight and there is little to distinguish the New Zealand landscape from the Victorian. That, however, did not last very long. It was the result of Chevalier's intent to produce works of topographical exactness and reconcile this with his love of nature. As he moved through Otago his sensitivity towards the essential features of the landscape developed markedly. In this respect he was working in a manner similar to those French landscape artists of the nineteenth century who elevated studies of nature into an art form in their own right.

Chevalier's attention to detail is quite extraordinary: doubtless it reflects his earlier training in detail whilst studying architecture. His work is precise. and his draughtsmanship fairly sure and firm. He often annotated his drawings with clear instructions as to the precise colours of certain areas, the time of day when he was working on the scene, details of human activities, and the prevailing weather conditions. These drawings, apparently made under pressure of time, were obviously meant to be working drawings to be developed when he returned to the studio. In some cases it is obvious which works were produced in this way; and the saccharine colours show that he needed to be before the motif to establish the correct colour values.

charcoal and brush (Auckland City Art Gallery)

It is quite apparent that Chevalier found the Southern Alps very different from the Swiss alpine scenery. The foothills and the broad river beds were something new to his eyes. To portray these features with any great conviction he needed to analyse the forms and find ways of reproducing them without losing the aesthetic content of the subject matter. In some areas, such as the gorge of the Waimakariri, Chevalier carefully noted the main planes of the land masses, and built these up into very simple geometric forms so that the architectonic nature of the area is stressed. Thus, while many of his contemporaries were still overwhelmed by the sublime beauty of the land forms, Chevalier in many instances imposed a fairly rigorous analysis on the underlying structure so that an arrangement of geometric shapes evolved. This approach sets him apart from his contemporaries and gives his work a logic which is surprising for the time.

As he grew acquainted with both the landscape and lighting Chevalier was able to seize upon the essential features more easily. His drawings, it must be stressed, were working drawings and not works in their own right. In 1866 a critic writing in The Australasian said: 'The chief fault that we have heard objected to both [Chevalier and Von Guerard] in different degrees, is that of stiffness, of not being easy and flowing enough in their outline and contour'. This is, perhaps; a criticism one would still accept today. But in Chevalier's defence one can say that his drawings of the landscape are economic, perhaps the result of his preparing drawings for wood-engravings when he worked for the Melbourne Punch.(4)

NICHOLAS CHEVALIER The Pyramids from Waimea Plains
watercolour 310 x 472 mm.
(National Art Gallery of New Zealand)

In Modern Painters Ruskin wrote: 'The landscape painter must always have two great and distinct ends: the first, to induce in the spectator's mind the faithful conception of any natural objects whatsoever; the second, to guide the spectator's mind to those objects most worthy of its contemplation, and to inform him of the thoughts and feelings with which these were regarded by the artist himself'.5 It seems, on the evidence of his work, that Chevalier subscribed to ideas like these. It is not known whether he read Ruskin at the time he was in Australasia: but if not he might well have been influenced by the work of those who had.

During the main span of Chevalier's artistic career, the development of landscape painting was being challenged by Barbizon, and later, Impressionist painters: but Chevalier remained comparatively untouched by this revolution. Although he received his art education in Europe, Chevalier was drawn to the tradition of the English water colourists and appeared little influenced by the invigorating brush-work of Constable and Turner. In fact, during the 'fifties and 'sixties he tended to remain within the style indicated by the Dutch/ English landscape artists (as seen in The Buffalo Ranges of Victoria), and only gradually, as the years passed, did his work reflect a degree of influence derived from the Romantic painters.

Chevalier was not a profound draughtsman or, for that matter, a revolutionary landscape artist: but it seems reasonable to infer that he was aware of some of the contemporary attitudes towards painting both in England and France. He was one of those artists who delighted in, and often excelled at, drawing a particular scene: however, he showed little interest in producing a classical landscape. He was, to some extent, imbued with Romantic tendencies. This may be seen when Chevalier translates some of his studies into more highly finished works.

NICHOLAS CHEVALIER Gorge of the Waimakiriri
pencil 110 x 495 mm. (National Art Gallery of New Zealand)

He emerged as a painter of landscapes at a time when the basis of landscape art was being questioned and subsequently modified. He, and many others of his generation, were caught in the cross-fire between the adherents of the classical tradition and the promoters of the validity of the etude as a work of art in its own right. Chevalier chose to work in the more acceptable style: which was not classical but free to the extent that topographical exactitude would permit.

On balance it seems fairly clear that Chevalier developed a style of landscape painting and drawing which was rooted in a long tradition. His is an anecdotal type of drawing: it conveys the view precisely; it does not take too many liberties with detail; and the whole is presented in an agreeable format. His contribution to painting in both Australia and New Zealand is considerable in so far as he brought to both countries a well-rounded professionalism which was greatly needed. His eye was perceptive and he was able to convey the impressions of these alien landscapes as seen through the eyes of a well-educated European, His contribution to art in New Zealand has not been fully appreciated but the 'displaying of his work must go a long way to establishing him as one of the distinguished pioneer landscape artists to have worked in the country.

1. F-A. Forel, Nicholas Chevalier, Peinture Vaudois, D'Apres les notes de Mme, C. Chevalier, Traduction libre par F-A. Forel. Extrait de la Gazette de Lausanne du 21 Avril 1908 Lausanne, Imprimerie Lucien Vincent, 1908.
2. ibid.
3. Otago Witness, 2 December, 1865.
4. The Australasian, 17 November, 1866
5. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Part II: Of Truth, London, George Allen; 1897, Section 1, Chapter 1.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 17 Spring 1980