Nicholas Chevalier is a rather glamorous figure in nineteenth-century New Zealand painting. Born in St Petersburg of a Swiss father and a Russian mother, he had travelled widely in Europe and studied at the Academy of Munich and at the Royal Academy, London, before arriving in Dunedin on his first visit from Melbourne with his wife Caroline in 1865. On commission from the Otago and Canterbury Provincial Councils, he made a large number of pencil sketches and watercolours of the South Island. After four months he returned to his Australian base, but revisited New Zealand in November 1868 as part of the Duke of Edinburgh’s entourage on HMS Galatea. During this trip he travelled about the lower North Island and up the west coast as far as Wanganui. The two watercolours Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait and Kapiti that are directly associated with the large oil painting Cook Strait, New Zealand were likely to have been executed on this journey.
It was typical practice of nineteenth-century landscape artists to use the sketches and watercolours made on site as the basis for an oil painting or large watercolour in the studio. Cook Strait, New Zealand was prepared and painted in this way. A comparison of the images reveals Chevalier’s differing aims in the respective media. While the watercolours are the more factual and topographical records of a first impression, the oil painting has been significantly altered. The three Maori waka in Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait are reproduced in the oil painting, though they have been transferred from Paekakariki beach to one further up the coast in order to align them geographically with the view of Kapiti Island.
Similarly, the pattern of waves in Kapiti has been repeated in the oil painting. In Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait the figures engaged in a typical food-gathering activity add a picturesque element to the scene, while the figure with the horse in Kapiti serves to emphasise the breadth and depth of the seascape. In each of the watercolours the size of the figures in relation to their surroundings suggests the grandeur of nature and hence an element of the sublime. In the oil painting Chevalier has allowed the size of the canvas and the lowering clouds to convey this aspect of the romantic landscape tradition, and has left only the waka to suggest a human element.
In his pencil drawings and watercolour sketches, Chevalier showed that he could focus on factual aspects and depict topographical details of a particular landscape or settlement. He noted down relevant details such as dates and times, names of locations and types of flora. Though used as visual notes towards the oil painting, however, both Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait and Kapiti are finished works in their own right. Together with the finely executed and exquisitely coloured watercolours Chevalier painted of the Duke of Edinburgh’s visits to Japan, China and India on his return voyage to England, they were most likely included in an 1872 exhibition. As the well-known journalist and art commentator James Dafforne noted, ‘[T]he results of these extensive travels formed the large and singularly interesting collection of sketches and drawings Chevalier exhibited at the Crystal Palace, Sydenham in manners and customs of the "far East."’(1) Chevalier exhibited Cook Strait, New Zealand at the Royal Academy in 1884, the year in which he probably completed it. Catering to the English viewer’s taste for the romantic and the exotic, it epitomises a type of ‘exhibition picture’ popular at the Royal Academy.
Adapted from an essay originally published in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).
1. James Dafforne, ‘The works of Nicolas Chevalier’, The Art Journal, July 1879, p. 123.