We like to think that we’re more global than ever before, but many in the nineteenth century got around just as much as we do today. They may not have travelled as quickly, but the world was their oyster. Today and in a week’s time I look at the paintings and career of Nicholas Chevalier (1828–1902): Swiss by descent, born in Russia, trained in Germany, based in Britain, painted the landscapes of Australia and New Zealand, and died in London. He was also fluent in French, English, Russian, German, Italian and Portuguese.
Chevalier’s father, who was Swiss, was the manager of some Russian estates, and was living in Saint Petersburg, where the artist was born in 1828. He moved with his family back to Lausanne in Switzerland, where he started learning to paint before going on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Munich. When he completed his training in Germany, he moved to London to work as an illustrator in 1851. He visited Rome, then in the autumn/fall of 1854 he sailed to Australia, arriving in Melbourne, where he continued to work as an illustrator.
Chevalier was then engaged with expeditions to explore the new continent, through an association with the meteorologist and explorer Georg von Neumayer.
Fortunately, Chevalier wasn’t a member of the Burke and Wills Expedition, but painted this Memorandum of the Start of the Exploring Expedition in 1860. That expedition left Royal Park, Melbourne on the afternoon of 20 August 1860 with nineteen men and about twenty tonnes of equipment and stores, as shown here. Their aim was to cross the continent of Australia from south to north, but the expedition was lost, and its leaders believed to have died in June the following year. A full account is on Wikipedia.
One of these expeditions took Chevalier to western Victoria, to Mount Arapiles and the Mitre Rock (1863). This had been discovered and climbed in 1836, and has the original name of Djurid. This rock formation rises to 140 metres (450 feet) above the Wimmera plains, and is now a popular destination for rock climbers.
The following year, Chevalier went on another trip, this time to The Buffalo Ranges (1864) in the alpine region of Victoria. Now a National Park, its rugged plateau is about 1700 metres (5,600 feet) above sea level. This view appears to have been made during the winter, when snow settles on the plateau. The small cottage in the foreground has an overshot waterwheel to the right.
This painting was shown at the opening exhibition of the National Gallery in Melbourne, in 1864, from which it was purchased by the gallery, becoming one of the first two paintings of Australia in its collection.
In 1865, Chevalier moved on to New Zealand, where he again travelled widely and painted many landscapes.
He became enamoured with the strait separating the two main islands of New Zealand, the Cook Strait. In 1865, the ship City of Dunedin had sunk there with the loss of thirty-nine lives. His watercolour Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait, painted in 1868 shows a group of Maori boats hauled up in the dunes, as a few children play on the beach.
Kapiti (c 1868) is another fine and painterly watercolour of Cook Strait with large breakers rolling in.
Chevalier then returned to Melbourne, where he painted the royal visit by the Duke of Edinburgh, then accompanied him on his return to Britain on board HMS Galatea, a Royal Navy warship. They sailed into the Pacific and visited Tahiti and Hawai’i before returning westabout via Japan, China, Sri Lanka and India.
During his visit to Hawai’i, Chevalier travelled to the island of O’ahu, where he painted The Pali (1869) in watercolour. This is an exposed section of a cliff in the Koʻolau mountain which affords a panoramic view of the north-east coast of that island. Although it appears rugged and isolated here, a road had recently been built to open up access.
On his return to Britain, Chevalier exhibited his paintings in London, to great acclaim.
Even in the British Isles, Chevalier seems to have sought out rugged places. During a visit to the Channel Isles in 1871, he painted this watercolour of A Stormy Sea and Rocks off Jersey.
He was soon to receive a royal commission, this time from Queen Victoria herself.