Joseph Ferdinand Cheval was born on April 19, 1836 in Charmes sur l’Herbasse in the Drôme, France. He was a country postman who he spent 33 years of his life building an Ideal Palace and eight more years building his own tomb, both considered as masterpieces of naive architecture.
After obtaining his primary school certificate, he became an apprentice baker at the age of thirteen, a profession in which he worked for a few years. In 1867, he was officially named as a postman and two years later assigned to Hauterives, about twelve kilometres from his native village, in charge of the Tersanne round, 33 km on foot every day. From the beginning of his long rounds, he spent his time in long reveries in which he built a “fairy palace”. These reveries began to take concrete shape only ten years later.
In April, 1879, during one of his rounds, the postman’s foot stumbled against a stone, which almost caused him to fall down. His eye was caught by the curious shape of the stone. He picked it up and slipped it into one of his pockets intending to look at it later at his leisure. This was the Stumbling Block.
The next day, as he passed the same place, he saw that there were other stones with even more unusual shapes. He then thought that “since nature wants to do sculpture,” he could, after all his long preparatory reveries very well become architect, contractor and worker to build an Ideal Palace.
For the next 33 years, Ferdinand Cheval continued to choose stones during his daily round, first carrying them in his pockets, then sometimes using a basket or a wheelbarrow. When he got back home, he spent long hours bringing his dream to fruition, working at night by the light of a kerosene lamp. He was thought of as an eccentric by the locals, who did not have the overall vision that the architect had.
Cheval spent the first twenty years building the East side of what he was to call the Temple of Nature (the term Ideal Palace was used by Cheval only after his meeting with the Alpine bard Émile Roux Parassac in 1904). The entire intuitive development of our naive architect can be followed in the way he created his palace. It developed from the organic, like lush vegetation spreading around caves and alcoves, to the symmetrical organization of a majestic facade.
Ferdinand Cheval began by digging out a pond and making a waterfall around it: the Source of Life. Continuing to the north, he built a second waterfall, the Source of Wisdom. Then comes the great temple with the symmetrical façade, the Egyptian Monument. To establish a sense of symmetry in keeping with the Egyptian Monument, Ferdinand Cheval then started building the Hindu Temple (1891-1895), with exotic flora and fauna, and eventually guarded by the three impressive Giants representing Caesar, Vercingetorix and Archimedes.
Much less organic, more rigorous and bounded in its forms, the west facade is decorated with miniature examples of architecture from all around the world placed in alcoves: a Mosque, a Hindu Temple, a Swiss Chalet, the Square House of Algiers and a Castle from the Middle Ages. Also accessed from there is a twenty-meter long gallery, sinking into the Palace and decorated with sculptures. Above is a large terrace measuring 23 meters (almost the entire length of the Palace) which can be reached by stairs.
To the north is the side of the Temple of Nature, caves and all kinds of animals such as a stag, a pelican and a crocodile.
The fairly bare south side is a tribute from Cheval to Ancient Times, through an antediluvian museum; it also gives a clear access to the terrace with stairs and balcony.
The Palace is both a hymn to Nature and a very personal mixture of different architectural styles, with inspiration drawn from the Bible and Hindu and Egyptian mythology. We must not forget that Cheval was a postman at a time when travel and postcards were both starting to develop (the latter appeared in France in 1873, five years before the Ideal Palace).
Ferdinand Cheval finished building the Ideal Palace in 1912. After completing the Ideal Palace, he expressed his desire to be buried within the boundaries of his work, which French law did not allow when the body has not been cremated. Cremation at the time was not at all accepted in France, so Ferdinand Cheval resolved to comply with the legal requirements by being buried when the time came in the cemetery, but choosing himself the form that his tomb would take.
So it was that starting in 1914, he spent a further eight years carrying stones to the cemetery of Hauterives and assembling them to form The Tomb of Silence and Endless Rest, completed in 1922. He was buried there after his death in 1924.
“As the son of a peasant, I want to live and die so as to prove that there are also men of genius and of energy in my station. For twenty-nine years I have been a country postman. My work is my glory and honour my only joy; now here is my strange story. Where, forty years later, the dream has become a reality”.
Ferdinand Cheval’s letter to André Lacroix
For several years, it was Postman Cheval’s intention to produce a brochure “to propagate” his unique work everywhere. In his letter of 1897, he reported the circumstances and stages of his work to the departmental archivist Andre Lacroix and thanked him for agreeing to send him a short biography.
“One day in April 1879, I was doing my rounds as a rural postman a quarter of a league before reaching Tersanne. I was walking quickly, when my foot caught something that sent me tumbling a few meters away. I wanted to know what had caused it. I was very surprised to see that I had brought a stone out of the earth. It was of such a bizarre and yet picturesque shape that I looked around me. I saw that it was not alone. I took it and wrapped it in my handkerchief and carefully took it away with me, promising myself to take advantage of the free time that my rounds would leave me to set in a store of them.
From then on, I had no rest day or night. I set out to find some more. Sometimes I did 5 or 6 kilometres and when I was loaded up I carried them on my back. I began to dig a pool in which I started to sculpt different species of animal with cement. Then I started to make a waterfall with my stones. It took me two years to build. Once it was finished, I was amazed with my work. Criticized by the locals, but encouraged by foreign visitors, I did not lose heart. I had discovered other stones, each more beautiful than the other, in Saint-Martin-d’Août, in Treigneux, and in Saint-Germain. They were like little round balls. I set to work.
I started a cave and a second waterfall so that my cave was located between the two. This is what forms the whole middle part of the monument. It took me another three years to complete. Still more delighted with my work, the idea then came to me that with my little round balls that I had found in Saint-Germain, Treigneux, and Saint-Martin-d’Août I could make myself an Egyptian tomb whose style would be unique in the world, and be buried in the rock just like the pharaohs. I started digging into the earth and I formed a kind of rock, and in this rock I dug coffins. These coffins are covered with tiles that you can remove at will, themselves closed off by a stone door and an iron one.
On this underground rock, I built the monument that is twelve feet wide and fifteen feet long. The monument is supported by eight walls made of stones that have the most picturesque shape. The facades of the east and north are each supported by four columns that bear the serrations of the monument. In the middle, a beautiful stone wreath made with small round balls.
Above, the Virgin Mary’s cave, with the four Evangelists, two on each side. A cross with angels holding crowns, and pilgrims. Further up, a second crown with a mortuary urn, and above the urn, a little Genie. This monument is over 30 feet high. You reach the top via a spiral staircase. I worked night and day for another seven years to finish it. I carried my stones on my back, sometimes 15 kilometres, mostly at night.
Still to fill my spare time and for the symmetry of the monument, I wanted to add a Hindu Temple whose interior is a real cave, and this cave forms several small ones and in these small caves I placed the fossils.
I had found in the earth. The entrance is guarded by a group of animals such as: a bear, a boa, a crocodile, a lion, an elephant and other animals of this kind always found in the earth, and also tree trunks. On the other side, three giants and two mummies, all Egyptian, and above there are two prickly pears, palms, olives and an aloe. You reach the top of the tower by a spiral staircase. At the entrance of the staircase are four barbaresque columns. I took another four years to build this Hindu Temple.
Still with the same energy and perseverance, two years ago I started a gallery on the side where the sun sets with hecatombs on each side measuring 12 square feet that communicate either with the Hindu Temple or with the Tomb. Above the hecatombs and the gallery is a very large terrace, 22 metres long. You also reach it via stairs, the only purpose of which is so that visitors can get a view of the whole monument at their leisure.
Tourists came in large numbers this year, far more than in previous years and all left marvelling at my monument; they above all admire the hard work and perseverance that I spent on this wonderful work, to be called, I hope: Alone in the World.
I’ve been working for eighteen years and I still need two years to complete the interior and exterior of my dream that will have lasted for 20 years. I started this gigantic work at the age of 43 years. I have not served the government as a soldier but I served nearly thirty years as a postman.
As I must give a name to my work, I would ask you yourself to give it an overall or detailed name as you think best. You are better able to find it than anyone. I would like to repeat that I will pay for the costs incurred by correspondence or similar. Please let me know what they are. It was too kind of you to agree to send me a short biography. I will remain sincerely appreciative of all the trouble you have taken for me.
Please accept Mr. Lacroix, the expression of my profound respect. Your very humble servant,
Ferdinand Cheval, former postman. Hauterives”.
The Ideal Palace of Joseph Ferdinand Cheval / 8 rue du Palais – 26390 Hauterives – France
By Eric Lanuit