Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes Section

Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval, the postman’s dream palace

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Who is Ferdinand Cheval?

The Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval is proof that imagination has no limits and that with perseverance you can make your dreams come true!

We all have dreams, most will remain dreams though, but Ferdinand Cheval, a simple rural postman from the south of France is among the few who made his happen!

He indeed devoted 33 years of his life to assembling stone by stone the palace of his dream, now a historical monument.

This visionary with a boundless imagination was born in 1836 into a modest family of peasants near Valence, in the Rhône Valley.

He leaves his native region after the death of his parents to become an apprentice baker.

He marries in 1858 but his first son, born in 1864, sadly dies in infancy.

His second son was born in 1866 and the following year, at the age of 31, Ferdinand changes his profession to become a postman. His wife dies in 1873.

In 1878 and after several assignments, he marries again and is definitely posted to the town of Hauterives, 12 km north of his native village.

His daily round is over 25 km long, which he makes on foot!

Ferdinand Cheval, a self-taught genius artist

During one of his rounds in April 1879, he stumbles upon a strangely shaped stone which he brings home and nicknames ‘the stumbling rock’.

The following days he discovers many similar stones, with even more bizarre shapes which lead him to think that if Nature could create such sculptures, so could he!

From then on he collects stones during his rounds, carrying them initially in his pockets and eventually with the help of a wheelbarrow.

Back home, he works single-handed on his dream-palace after his day’s work, often by the light of his kerosene lamp.

He assembles stones with lime, mortar and cement which he reinforces with metal bars.

He spends the next 33 years of his life collecting stones to build his dream palace.

He retires in 1896 and embarks (this time with the help of a mason) in a new project: the construction of the Villa Alicius (named after his daughter - from his 2nd marriage -  who died at the age of 15) where he and his wife spend the rest of their life.

He completes his Palais Ideal in 1912, he is then 76 years old, but sadly 1912 is also the year his son Cyril dies.

Does his loss make him aware of his own mortality, as he embarks on the construction of his tomb in the cemetery of Hauterives?

His wife dies in 1914.

Ferdinand Cheval completes his Tombe du Silence et du Repos sans Fin - Tomb of Silence and Endless Rest in 1922.

He dies two years later, leaving us his magnificent architectural masterpiece.

Such was the impact of his work, that in 1969 the Culture Minister André Malraux recognizes the Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval as a superb illustration of Naïve Architecture and classifies it Historical Monument.

Ferdinand Cheval’s granddaughter Alice bequeaths the monument to the municipality of Hauterives in 1984.

Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval south facade
South facade

Palais ideal du Facteur Cheval, the masterpiece of a single man’s imagination

Imagination is often an escape, a way to endure the trials of life and takes shape in our ordinary environment.

Ferdinand Cheval finds inspiration in the first postcards and illustrated magazines which come into circulation circa 1873 with the development of tourism, but also in the Bible and of course Nature!

He creates an extraordinary bestiary of marine and terrestrial animals, real and imaginary, as well as mythical creatures such as fairies and giants alongside characters from Egyptian and Hindu mythology.

However, the Palais ideal du Facteur Cheval boasts impressive dimensions (12m high by 26m long) but is not habitable and rather comes across as a sacred place.

It doesn’t belong to any architectural category and exceeds all styles.

Ferdinand Cheval’s work is so unique that in 1930 it attracts the interest of Surrealist artists such as Picasso, André Breton who stayed in S. Cirq Lapopie, Niki de Saint-Phalle and the German-born Max Ernest.

The modest rural postman has earned his place among the greatest artists of the 19th/20th century.

Alone and often misunderstood and most likely mocked, he succeeded in making his dream palace come true and recognized as a masterpiece of Naive Architecture.

Villa Alicius and his mausoleum are also classified Historical Monuments.

And for those who wonder, yes cheval means horse, quite a name!

Ferdinand Cheval's Mausoleum in Hauterives Cemetery
Mausoleum in Hauterives Cemetery

How to get to the Palais ideal du Facteur Cheval in Hauterives?

Department of Drôme - Rhône Valley
Hauterives - 8, rue du Palais (45kms north of Valence)
Coordinates: Lat 45.254820 – Long 5.029020

By air: Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport (70kms north of Hauterives)
By car from Lyon-Saint-Exupéry Airport: Take A43 - D75 – D38 – D538 (about 1h15)
By train SNCF + coach: get off at Saint-Vallier sur Rhône station and take the bus line 3 (22km - about 30mn) or a taxi

Credit photos via Wikimedia Commons: Header CC BY-SA 4.0 - Palace exterior CC BY-SA 4.0 - Detail north facade CC BY-SA 3.0 - Detail south facade CC BY-SA 3.0 - Mausoleum CC BY-SA 3.0
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