03 November 2012

Nicholas Chevalier, a Russian-Swiss-Australian artist

Nicholas Chevalier (1828–1902) was born in St Petersburg, to a Swiss father who had gone to Russia to manage the estates of the Prince de Wittgenstein, a nobleman close to the Czar. The mother was Russian. As the family lived on the Prince's estate, young Nicholas became familiar with the paintings in the de Wittgenstein collection, presumably a powerful factor that first aroused his interest in art.

Nicholas spoke Rus­sian with his mother, French and German with his father, and learned fluent English, Italian and Portuguese for pleasure and travel. Languages became important as soon as Nicholas left Russia while still a teenager (in 1845); he studied art and architecture in Switzerland and Germany.

Six years later young Chevalier moved to Britain as a professional illustrator. How did he obtain patronage by the British royal family? I can’t find the answer but I do know that some of his paintings were hung at the Academy as early as 1852.
Chevalier, Survey Paddock, 1861, National Gallery Australia

Nor am I clear why Chevalier sailed to Australia in 1854, to join his father and brother. Three possibilities have been mentioned. Bronwyn Watson noted that he quickly found work as an illustrator at Melbourne’s magazine, Punch, and the Ill­ustrated Australian News. Perhaps he had organised the job, before he sailed from Europe. Christopher Allen said he had no choice – he had to travel to help dad with a timber business in rural Victoria. Or perhaps the family was simply rushing to the Victorian goldfields, like many other men before them.

Things were going very well for the young Russian who could not stand still. In the early 1860s he went on a scientific tour of rural Vict­oria where he concentrated on landscapes. In 1864, when the National Gallery of Victoria was founded, an exhibition of pictures by Victorian artists was held, the state govern­ment committing itself to buying the best picture. A Chevalier oil landscape was selected, the first picture painted in Australia to be included in the newly-prestigious NGV.

Then in 1865 Chevalier visited New Zealand for the first of three trips, travelling and painting, later displaying his oeuvre in Melbourne.
Chevalier, Self portrait, 1857, Art Gallery New South Wales

Nicholas and his wife Caroline Wilkie had no children so their lovely home in Royal Terrace Fitzroy became a European-style cultural salon. Writers, artists and musicians, many of them members of the Society of Fine Arts and the Royal Society, gathered for intellectual exchange, good company and wine. Even better, the Wilkie cousins in Melbourne ran Wilkie's Music Pianoforte Saloon in Collins St. The window of Wilkie's shop was a venue for many prominent Melbourne artists to show their work, including Chevalier. 15 exciting years in Melbourne!

The Sydney Morning Herald noted that in the days before the photo­grapher had established himself as a recorder of history, an artist was an essential member of the staff of a Royal traveller. When Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh came to Australia in 1868, he invited Chevalier to join his staff as an artist. In 1869 they went aboard the HMS Galat­ea, en route to India, Japan, China and finally back to Britain, permanently. The pictures painted during this last voyage were hung on display in London. 

In January 1874 Chevalier was commissioned by Queen Victoria to trav­el to St Petersburg and paint the royal wedding between his old patron Prince Alfred and Grand Duchess Marie of Russia. Chevalier was then permanently based in London and was a regular exhibitor at the Academy throughout the 1870s and 80s. Not only a skilled artist and linguist, Chevalier was a talented musician in the Royal Amateur Orchestral Society.

Chevalier, Grassdale Near Casterton, 1863, ANZ Collection

A large history painting called Buddha’s Renunciation 1884 was commissioned by a wealthy Australian landowner, Sir William Clarke, who then had it shipped back to Australia. Buddha is too romantic and sentimental to fit in with his earlier work, draped in exotic fabrics and lush Indian sandalwood. But perhaps Orientalism was becoming more popular then, particularly Orientalist history painting. Buddha has been in the Art Gallery of Ballarat since 1923

Even in old age he was an art agent in London, seeking out works for the Art Gallery of NSW to buy. Nicholas Chevalier died in London in 1902, after a very full life.

Interested readers might like to examine a major survey exhibition and publication, Australian Odyssey, which presented Australian art. This exhibition was held at the Gippsland and then the Geelong Art Galleries in 2011-2012.

Art critics asked, then and now, who was the best en plein-air artist in Australia, Swiss-born Louis Buvelot (1814-1888), Viennese-born Eugene von Guérard (1811–1901) or Russian-born Nicholas Chevalier (1828–1902)? During the 1860s Chevalier probably had a better name than von Guér­ard. Then Louis Buvelot became more popular in Melbourne than Chev­alier or Eugene von Guerard. Now I prefer von Buvelot’s landscapes.

My major reference has been An Artist’s Journey Through Canterbury (NZ) in 1866.

Chevalier, Buddha's Renunciation, 1882,
152 x 215 cm
Ballarat Art Gallery


Andrew said...

One of the Carlton buildings I photographed a while ago and linked to for you a few days ago was......Royal Terrace.

Hels said...


I love it :)

Student of history said...

Buvelot and von Guerard seem to pop up reasonably often in public collections and in art auctions. If Chevalier was just as famous in the 1860s, what happened to his work since?

Parnassus said...

Many landscape artists exhibit a wanderlust which leads them to travel, or to take artistic advantage of travel undertaken for other reasons. The prime example that comes to mind are Hudson River School artists, who traveled the American West to produce large and dramatic paintings.

These 19th century landscapes even played a part in the general appreciation of nature and people's roles as nature's custodians, and the development of parks and nature preserves.

I particularly like the Survey Paddock painting that you have shown here.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


agreed. It seems harder to find Chevalier in public galleries - did he go out of fashion? I recommend looking in New Zealand (eg Dunedin Public Art Gallery), National Gallery of Victoria, National Library of Australia Canberra, Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Hels said...


lots of people had that wonderlust in the mid-19th century; some artists were lucky enough to visit strange and wonderful corners of the world. [Even the European Orientalists shared that same sort of passion for exotic travel].

I agree that the resulting landscapes played a part in the general appreciation of nature, from the crashing of ocean waves onto a wild and rocky shoreline ...to serene grazing pastures and rural idyll.

marc aurel said...

Fascinating. Thank you.

Hels said...


I love the idea that Europeans could travel to the New World and have an important impact in the mid 19th century. But I have only seen Chevalier's work from Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps his paintings from Britain and Europe were smaller scale, in both size and story.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
How fascinating all of this is. We have not heard of Chevalier but do like the sound of his most interesting life experiences.

The paintings you show are very accomplished and clearly, with such an amazing competence in languages, Chevalier was an extremely talented individual. The self portrait is extremely attractive and, in spite of all the other influences, looks overwhelmingly Russian in our eyes.

ChrisJ said...

Interesting. Thank you.

I am always humbled and fascinated by those who learn several languages.

Emm in London said...

Wow! His landscapes look like photographs! They are just astounding and beautiful.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

you may not know Chevalier's antipodeon works, but he crops up in other, very interesting places.

Benjamin Farjeon was a British journo who returned home from Australia and wrote dozens of successful novels. He usually asked his old mate Nicholas Chevalier to do the illustrations.

Hels said...


so do I!!!! My grandfather was my hero - he spoke Russian and Yiddish at home, learned Polish and German from the markets, learned Hebrew in school, and spoke French and English during the war when he worked as a soldier-translator.

My sister in law became a professional translator, with responsibility for English, Czech, Hungarian, Yiddish and German.


Hels said...


very realistic landscapes! Have a look at some of his other powerful rural images:
"Victorian homestead"
"Studley Park at sunrise"
"Cape Schanck"

You might feel differently about his portraits which were more sentimental.

Emm in London said...

Those are lovely! I found three from Cape Schanck and think the Pulpit Rock one is my best.

Hels said...


I have added a reference to Buddha's Renunciation 1884 in Ballarat Art Gallery. Although it is far too sentimental for my taste, the painting provides us with an interesting comparison.