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Chevalier, Nicholas (1828–1902)

by Marjorie J. Tipping

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902), artist, was born on 9 May 1828 in St Petersburg, Russia, son of Louis Chevalier and his Russian wife. His father left Vaud, Switzerland, to become overseer of the estates of Prince Wittgenstein, aide-de-camp to Nicholas I, and in 1845 returned to Switzerland with his artistically inclined son. For the next six years Nicholas studied painting in Lausanne and architecture in Munich, where he helped with plans for the palace of Ludwig I at Berchtesgaden. He moved to London in 1851 and achieved some success in lithography and water-colour work. In 1852 he exhibited two paintings at the Royal Academy, illustrated several books including A. H. Layard, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh (London, 1853), designed the setting for the Koh-i-noor diamond and planned a fountain at Osborne for Queen Victoria.

Chevalier then spent some months studying water-colour painting and drawing in Rome. Meanwhile his father had speculated in Victoria, and a son, Louis, who later became manager of the vineyard at Bontharambo near Wangaratta, was on the goldfields. When the family fortunes declined, Nicholas was sent to join his brother. He arrived at Melbourne in February 1855, visited the goldfields, attended to his father's business and planned his return to Europe. But the newly-established Melbourne Punch and later the Illustrated Australian News found his talents invaluable and he decided to stay. No doubt this decision was also influenced by his marriage in Melbourne to Caroline Wilkie, daughter of an old friend, herself an artist and relation of Sir David Wilkie (1785-1841).

Chevalier's wood engraved cartoons became one of the most popular features in Punch. He also introduced chromo-lithography to Victoria where it became an important and flourishing art. He exhibited some of his delicately painted water-colours in December 1856 at the exhibition in Melbourne from which sprang the Society of Fine Arts. As an oil painter he was less successful, although his oil, 'The Buffalo Ranges', was selected as the best painting by a resident Victorian in an exhibition sponsored by the government in 1864. It was bought for £200, the first Australian painting obtained for the new National Gallery of Victoria. He continued to paint in oil and water-colour, often travelling about the countryside. His rather grandiose works in the style of the later Romantics were then popular, but his skilled technique, attention to detail and prolific output did not produce great painting. Although he had opportunities to observe much of interest, his over-conventionalized works lacked the atmosphere and inspiration of some contemporaries; probably his influence and importance as a personality were greater than his ability as an artist.

The Chevaliers had no children and their home in Royal Terrace, Nicholson Street, Fitzroy, became a centre of a witty and cultivated circle of writers, artists, musicians, journalists and academics, many of them fellow members of the Society of Fine Arts and the Royal Society.

After exploring and painting in many parts of Victoria, Chevalier visited New Zealand where he travelled widely, painted landscapes that reminded him of his ancestral home and was paid £200 by the Canterbury legislature to make a pictorial survey of the interior. On his return to Australia he showed several paintings at the International Exhibition in Melbourne in 1866-67, and at the Paris Salon in 1868.

When the Duke of Edinburgh was touring Australia Chevalier was invited to join the royal suite on its visit to Tasmania in January 1868. The duke had favourably noted the transparencies he had painted for the illuminations for the royal visit. When the duke briefly returned to Melbourne in the following year Chevalier was invited to rejoin the party in H.M.S. Galatea and sailed to London via the East and the Pacific islands. He produced 120 drawings and many water-colours for Queen Victoria. An accomplished musician, he became second violinist in the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society which had been started by officers in the Galatea and in which the duke was first violin.

From 1871 Chevalier was extremely busy. He received numerous royal commissions and painted many scenes of his past travels. For some years he suffered badly from rheumatic gout and had to winter in Madeira. His health revived and his last years were spent happily in England, reading and writing in preference to painting, and composing poetry as well as music. He was a brilliant linguist, fluent in French, English, Russian, German, Italian and Portuguese. Singularly handsome, he made friends readily because of his easy manner, wide interests and good conversation. From 1882 he was London adviser to the National Gallery of New South Wales. He died in London on 15 March 1902, survived by his widow who left notes for a short monograph on his life and presented many of his New Zealand paintings to the National Art Gallery at Wellington.

In Australia his works are represented in the Sydney, Melbourne and Ballarat galleries, the Mitchell and La Trobe Libraries and private collections. The Art Gallery of New South Wales has a self-portrait.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Chevalier, Nicholas Chevalier, Peintre Vaudois, F. A. Forel ed (Lausanne, 1908)
  • B. Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • W. Dixson, ‘Notes on Australian Artists’, Journal and Proceedings (Royal Australian Historical Society), vol 9, part 3, 1923, pp 161-168
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3 Mar 1869
  • ‘Obituary’, Times (London), 18 Mar 1902, p 10
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Mar 1902
  • H. G. Turner papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • M. Tipping, Early Colonial Artists, Ludwig Becker and Nicholas Chevalier (manuscript, Royal Historical Society of Victoria).

Citation details

Marjorie J. Tipping, 'Chevalier, Nicholas (1828–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chevalier-nicholas-3200/text4807, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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