Cook Straits (circa 1884) by Nicholas Chevalier was purchased by Te Papa in 2003. The oil painting arrived at Te Papa clad only in its original slip-frame. Te Papa embarked on a major conservation project, which included condition assessment, scientific analysis, conservation treatment, and digital documentation. The painting is now on display in the exhibition Toi Te Papa Art of the Nation at Te Papa.
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History of the Painting
On his second visit to New Zealand in 1868, Nicholas Chevalier travelled the lower North Island making pencil sketches and watercolours of the Kapiti Coast, Hutt Valley, and Rimutaka Ranges. The two watercolours in Te Papa’s collection associated with Cook Straits – Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait (canoes on a beach) and Untitled (Kapiti) – were probably executed on this journey. It was common practice for nineteenth century landscape artists to later work up an oil painting or large watercolour in their studios using sketches made on site. Cook Straits and the two related watercolours illustrate this working method.
Chevalier exhibited Cook Straits at the Royal Academy in London in 1884 – probably the year in which it was completed. The painting is typical of the landscape painting favoured by the Academy – Chevalier has used the conventions of the nineteenth-century Romantic landscape tradition to represent scenes of New Zealand, using material he had created on his visits some twenty years before.
Comparison of the watercolours with the oil painting reveals the intensified Romantic treatment Chevalier applied to Cook Straits, and the extent to which he exercised artistic license in the painting. For example, the three Māori waka in Near Paekakariki, Cook Strait (canoes on a beach) are reproduced almost exactly in the oil painting but have been shifted further north so the view of Kapiti Island seen in Untitled (Kapiti) could be utilised. The figures in both watercolours have been dispensed with in the oil painting, while the drama of the sky with its changing clouds and stormy seascape has been emphasised.
In Paekakariki, the figures gathering food add a picturesque element, while the figure with the horse in Untitled emphasises the breadth and depth of the seascape. In both watercolours, the scale of the figures in relation to their surroundings suggests the grandeur of nature. In the oil, Chevalier has allowed the size of the canvas and the low threatening clouds to convey this aspect of the Romantic landscape tradition.
Major oil paintings by Chevalier are rare. Te Papa had long maintained a desire to acquire such a work, and after hearing about Cook Straits waited for it to become available. This occurred in 2003. It was a significant purchase with regard to Chevalier’s oeuvre and the rich resource of New Zealand watercolours and pencil sketches donated to Te Papa by Chevalier’s widow, Caroline, in 1912 and 1919. Furthermore, it allows Te Papa to exhibit an important aspect of Chevalier’s working methods and to demonstrate the philosophies of traditional nineteenth century landscape painting.