Ferdinand Cheval was born into poverty in a small French village in the département of Drôme in 1836. His father was a farmhand and Ferdinand followed in his footsteps. At the age of 31 he received his certificat de moralité from the préfet, which he needed in applying for a federal appointment as a rural mail carrier. He took his oath of office on July 12, 1867, two days before France’s Independence Day.
It was a day of personal independence for Ferdinand. He was free of the drudgery and hard labor of farming in a non-mechanized world where furrows were created with a hand-held plow and hay was cut with a scythe. To be a government employee, to wear a uniform and a badge, was a definite step up in the world. He had left school at 13 but he could read and write. The only other qualification for the position of rural postman was that he be able to cover a daily route of 20 miles on foot.
After two years he was assigned to a permanent route based in the village of Hauterives, equidistant between Lyon and Valence, in the alpine foothills bordering the Rhône Valley. The roads were unpaved, the terrain steep, his route often extended over two days. He slept in barns along the route. The distance between farms was long; most of the time he was alone with his thoughts. Many years later he wrote:
"What else is there to do when one is constantly walking in the same setting,
apart from dreaming? To fill my thoughts, I built in my dreams a magical palace . . ."
Today, in the village of Hauterives, Le Palais Idéal (the visionary palace) is a national monument. It’s creator, Ferdinand Cheval, is hailed as an international role model in primitive art. The 1,300 inhabitants of the village, in one way or another, earn their livelihood from the 120,000 annual visitors to the site. But, as Ferdinand himself said, "It is a long way from dream to reality."
When Ferdinand was 43, he stumbled on something while walking his mail route. The road was rough and steep; he fell and rolled several yards. He picked himself up and, curious as to what had caused him to fall, went back and found that he had unearthed a stone unlike any he had ever seen before.
"My stumbling block was a molasse stone worked by water and hardened by the strength of time."
In other words, a piece of eroded sandstone. But one that was so oddly shaped that Ferdinand looked around . . . and found others just like it. He picked them up and wrapped them in his handkerchief. From then on, he was constantly on the lookout for odd stones. He amassed a large number. What should he do with them?
His old dreams of "building something magical" came back. It was 1879, fourteen years before mail carriers would be granted two weeks annual leave. Sunday was the Lord’s day. But, on the nights when he was not sleeping somewhere along his route, he could work at night. By the light of the moon, the glow of the stars. He owned a small piece of land in Hauterives, a wheelbarrow, a shovel. He set to work.
"I started by digging a pool in which I made all sorts of animals with cement. Then with my stones I started a waterfall. It took two years to make."
He continued searching for stones in odd shapes, shapes that he could incorporate into figures, stones that looked like feathers, jets of water, tree trunks, crown jewels, spindles, corks, plates, rings, insects, palm fronds, sea shells, beads, flowers, tubes, horns, antlers, fossils, little stones he could put in his pocket, large stones he must carry on his back, in his wheelbarrow.
He built a cave and a second waterfall. It took three more years to finish. He decided to make a tomb where he could be buried like a Pharaoh. It took seven years to finish, "sometimes carrying my stones on my back ten miles and most of the time by night."
Everything was encrusted with images in stone, delicate as lace, resembling scrimshaw carving. He built a Hindu temple "four years to build this", a grotto dedicated to the Virgin Mary "seven more years to finish it",
doors made of stone, columns built of layered stone disks, Egyptian mummies,
a 30-foot tower, spiral staircases, a viewing gallery.
And what did Ferdinand’s neighbors think? They thought he was crazy. But, sometimes, "foreign people", strangers from Marseille, perhaps, or travelers from Paris found their way to Hauterives and were encouraging. He, himself, was ”filled with wonder at my work”. He found himself ”more and more delighted”.
The years rolled on. Now the "foreign people" were "tourists who came in great number, more numerous than the previous years". And, finally, fame tapped him on the shoulder.
In 1897, eighteen years after Ferdinand found the first stone, the departmental archivist, André Lacroix, decided to list the monument in the governmental records of the region. He wrote and asked for a brief report on how the work came to be and what name should be given to it. Ferdinand, in turn, wrote his story but declined to give the monument a name. It was the archivist who named it, at Ferdinand’s request, "Le Palais Idéal".
Sixty-one years old at the time, with thirty years of postal service behind him, Ferdinand felt that he would finish his work in two more years. The monument was finally finished in 1912, when he was 76. He fully intended to be buried in it. But the authorities refused permission for burial outside of the local cemetery.
At age 78, after several years of wrangling with bureaucracy, he started building his own vault in the parish cemetery. It took him another eight years. Twenty months after finishing it, on August 19, 1924, Ferdinand died at the age of 88. At his request, his "faithful" wheelbarrow and tools were buried in the monument.
He had been pleased with the recognition by Lacroix, the local archivist. There were other accolades, mainly after his death. André Breton, an early leader of the surrealist movement, immortalized the facteur in poem. Dadaist Max Ernst produced a painting entitled "Postman Cheval". Swiss sculptor Jean Tinguely, creator of "moving sculptures" in the 1950s, paid tribute to Ferdinand. Pablo Picasso visited Le Palais Idéal and gave his nod of approval. Finally, in 1969, the Minister for the Arts, André Malraux, listed it as the "only example of primitive architecture".
This was against the opinion of most of the officials of the Minstry for the Arts, who wrote in an earlier report that "the whole monument is absolutely hideous. It is a pathetic pack of insanities muddled in a boor's brain."
There was one final show of approval. Fifty years after he died, the citizens of Hauterives held a town meeting and voted to commission a bronze bust of the late mailman to be placed in front of the post office on the town square.
After seeing pictures of this for several years, I finally visited it on a rainy day in early November. My first impression was gray, gray, gray - all that concrete. Once I was inside it was smaller than I had imagined it to be. But the complexity of the work is mind-boggling.
The entire structure is a frenzy of detail, an extravaganza of ornamentation. Hundreds of thousands of stones were collected and incorporated into the statuary. Hundreds of minature palaces and temples are tucked and folded into the crevices of the facade. Several of the outside walls as well as a tunnel running through the bottom level are carved and chiseled with poems and inscriptions and objects in bas-relief.
One may question a mind that would conceive such a project, but can only marvel at the indomitable will needed to complete it.
Postman Cheval (thing)