Though Nichols began his career as a lawyer, he turned to art as a profession by 1848. He studied in New York City with Jasper Cropsey and continued his education in Europe in 1853. In 1858 he opened a studio in the 10th Street Studio Building in New York City which he kept until 1862. He began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design in 1862 where he became an associate member the following year. He exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum from 1857 to 1864.
He was a popular figure, and The Crayon in March 1858 noted that "Nichols is painting a view of Mount Washington: the view selected is different from any of those hitherto painted on a similar scale." In March of the following year The Crayon reported that "Nichols is engaged upon a view on the north side of the White Mountains; it presents a wilder, grander aspect of White Mountain scenery than is usually portrayed by our pictorial investigators in that region."