Caroline and Nicholas Chevalier visited New Zealand several times during the 1860s. Their impressions of the country, which they recorded in writings and in works of art, are of considerable historical interest.
Nicholas Chevalier is said to have been born in St Petersburg, Russia, on 9 May 1828, the son of a Swiss father, Louis Chevalier, and a Russian mother, Tatiana Onofriewna. Louis Chevalier was then controller of the Prince de Wittgenstein's estates; he was later a merchant. In 1845 the family moved to Lausanne, where Nicholas studied art at the Musée Arlaud under J. S. Guignard. He went to Munich in 1848 and studied architecture under Ludwig Lange, and in 1851 travelled to London where he painted in watercolours and studied the technique of lithography. He produced some of the lithographed illustrations for A. H. Layard's Discoveries among the ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (1853), and two of his watercolours were accepted by the Royal Academy for the 1852 exhibition. With assistance from his family he moved to Rome to further his studies in art. He remained in Italy for most of 1853 and 1854, and then left for Melbourne, Australia. He was supposed to attend to his family's business interests there, but was soon employed as an artist and cartoonist for the Melbourne Punch and the Victoria Illustrated magazine.
On 5 March 1857 at the Congregational Church, Brunswick Street, Melbourne, Nicholas Chevalier married Caroline Wilkie. There were no children of the marriage. Little is known of Caroline Wilkie's early life. She was born in London, probably some time between 1832 and 1836, the daughter of Sarah Drew and her husband, Frederick Wilkie, an artist. David Wilkie, the Scottish artist, was a relative. Following the family tradition Caroline Wilkie became an artist. After their marriage Caroline and Nicholas Chevalier belonged to a circle of artists and intellectuals in Melbourne.
Nicholas Chevalier became a member of the Victoria Society of Fine Arts and his work was soon well known. In 1864 he won first prize in a state art competition for his painting, 'The Buffalo Ranges'. He first visited New Zealand, as an established artist, in 1865. Arriving in Dunedin on 22 November in the Tararua, he obtained a grant of £200 from the Otago Provincial Council to travel for three months throughout the province, drawing and painting the landscape. The provincial government hoped his works would be shown in the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and would attract settlers to the province. Although Nicholas completed his commission, there is no record that the works were included in the Paris Exhibition. In January 1866 Nicholas was again awarded £200, this time by the Canterbury Provincial Council who thought 'that as Otago had granted him £200, this province should do the same'.
Travelling from Dunedin to Lyttelton in late March, Nicholas was reunited with Caroline who had come to New Zealand to be with him. Early in April Nicholas and Caroline left Christchurch to visit the West Coast, travelling via the Hurunui and Taramakau rivers and Otira Gorge to Hokitika. They returned by way of the Taramakau River, Otira Gorge, Arthur's Pass and the Waimakariri River. Nicholas produced some perceptive drawings, and Caroline later wrote an account of the journey which gives a clear picture of the hardships the travellers had to endure. She also recalled the beauty of the unspoiled landscape: 'Immense trees clothed with lichens of many colors all hanging around their stems like grey beards & all looking very wierd & as though they were hundreds of years old as they may have been.' It is believed Caroline was the first European woman to make this rigorous journey.
On their return to Christchurch Nicholas Chevalier, this time unaccompanied by Caroline Chevalier, briefly visited the Mt Cook area. In early July he held an exhibition of his paintings and sketches in Christchurch. About a week later an exhibition of his work was held in Wellington and in late July another exhibition took place in Farley's Hall, Dunedin. On 10 August 1866 the Chevaliers departed for Melbourne and in October Nicholas showed his New Zealand works in the Intercolonial Exhibition of Australasia.
In Melbourne Nicholas Chevalier was soon employed producing decorations for displays to mark the official visit of the Duke of Edinburgh. He revisited New Zealand in late November 1868. After spending a few days in Wellington, he went exploring and sketching in the Hutt Valley and Remutaka Range. Returning to Wellington he caught the coach to Wanganui. He found the town under siege and proceeded to record the sights he witnessed in a series of vivid sketches. During his stay he rode out to visit some of the forts on the outskirts of Wanganui. As well as making sketches he kept a diary, fragments of which have survived. He returned to Wellington, stopping briefly at Westoe, William Fox's homestead in the Rangitīkei. While there he painted the surrounding countryside and copied some of Fox's drawings of Māori life.
Nicholas Chevalier returned to Melbourne towards the end of December 1868, in response to an invitation from the Duke of Edinburgh to join the royal party on its tour of New Zealand. Nicholas had previously met the duke, whom he had impressed with his agreeable manner and accomplishments. The royal party sailed for New Zealand via Sydney, where the duke survived an assassination attempt, and arrived in Wellington on 11 April 1869. It is not clear whether Caroline accompanied Nicholas on the journey. Nicholas went with the duke on visits to Otago, Nelson and Canterbury and made drawings. On 3 May the royal flotilla departed from Wellington for Auckland, sailing by way of the East Cape. In Auckland Nicholas made detailed drawings of Māori artefacts in the museum.
On 8 May the royal party departed for the long return voyage to England by way of Tahiti, Hawaii, Japan, China, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and India. In these places Nicholas Chevalier conscientiously recorded important events in which the royal party were involved. After he arrived in London in 1870 Nicholas held exhibitions of his New Zealand works. He was also employed by Queen Victoria to record some important state occasions. His reputation remained high until the late 1870s when he seemed to fall from favour. He suffered ill health towards the end of his life and died in London on 15 March 1902. Caroline Chevalier died in a nursing home in Bournemouth on 26 December 1917.
Nicholas Chevalier's place in the art history of New Zealand is assured. He worked in the English watercolour tradition and consequently his early New Zealand landscapes are sometimes unconvincing in their coloration. His drawing of the figure is somewhat superficial and his works are more descriptive than creative. However, his attention to detail and his professionalism are apparent, and as a topographical artist he shows great skill.
Caroline Chevalier is notable for her contribution to New Zealand travel writing and for the part she played in furthering the reputation of her husband. She presented many of his New Zealand works to the National Art Gallery in Wellington and on her death she left notes for a short monograph of his life.