If you ever find yourself in Hauterives in southeastern France, chances are pretty good that you are there to see Le Palais Idéal (The Ideal Palace) – the culmination of 33 years worth of work of a single man.
Ferdinand Cheval is reported to have said: “I was walking very fast when my foot caught on something that sent me stumbling a few meters away, I wanted to know the cause. In a dream I had built a palace, a castle or caves, I cannot express it well… I told no one about it for fear of being ridiculed and I felt ridiculous myself. Then fifteen years later, when I had almost forgotten my dream, when I wasn’t thinking of it at all, my foot reminded me of it. My foot tripped on a stone that almost made me fall. I wanted to know what it was… It was a stone of such a strange shape that I put it in my pocket to admire it at my ease. The next day, I went back to the same place. I found more stones, even more beautiful, I gathered them together on the spot and was overcome with delight… It’s a sandstone shaped by water and hardened by the power of time. It becomes as hard as pebbles. It represents a sculpture so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate, it represents any kind of animal, any kind of caricature.”
Starting in April 1879, for the next thirty-three years, Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924), a French postman, picked up stones during his daily mail round and carried them home to build his Palais idéal. He spent the first twenty years alone just building the outer walls! At first, he carried the stones in his pockets, then switched to a basket. Eventually, he used a wheelbarrow. He often worked at night, by the light of an oil lamp.
The stones bound together with lime, mortar and cement, The Palais is a mix of different styles with inspirations from Christianity to Hinduism. It is as intricate as it is vast, and includes sculptures of exotic animals and mythical creatures, which were said to be inspired by the postcards he delivered.
The Palace is regarded as an extraordinary example of naïve art architecture.
Just before his death, Cheval began to receive some recognition from luminaries like André Breton and Pablo Picasso. His work is commemorated in an essay by Anaïs Nin. In 1932, the German artist Max Ernst created a collage titled The Postman Cheval. The work belongs to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection and is on display there. In 1958, Ado Kyrou made Le Palais idéal, a short film on Cheval’s palace.
In 1969, André Malraux, the Minister of Culture, declared the Palais a cultural landmark and had it officially protected. In 1986 Cheval was put on a French postage stamp.
Cheval also wanted to be buried in his palace. However, since that is illegal in France, he proceeded to spend eight more years building a mausoleum for himself in the Hauterives cemetery. He died on 19 August 1924, about a year after he had finished building it, and is buried there.