Ferdinand Cheval: The Postman who handbuilt his Ideal Palace
Are you or your children destined to be great? What defines greatness in today’s society? This is hotly debated and opinions are diverse. I think greatness is displayed by following one’s passion, contributing to society and leaving ‘a mark’ no matter how small. This story shows how a postman achieved greatness in his lifetime in a very unsuspecting way.
This story resonates with me as my children are always putting pebbles, shells and unusual pieces of wood in their pockets or stuffing them in my handbag when we go for a walk. The ‘best’ are kept and displayed in flower pots or on our deck with pride.
Ferdinand Cheval (19 April 1836 – 19 August 1924) was a French postman who spent thirty-three years of his life building Le Palais Idéal (the “Ideal Palace”) in the French village of Hauterives from pebbles. That’s it, whole buildings from pebbles. The Palace is regarded as an extraordinary example of naïve art architecture and the story of its construction is quite amazing.
Ferdinand Cheval was born in Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse, in the Drôme département of France, and lived in Châteauneuf-de-Galaure. He left school at the age of 13 to become a baker’s apprentice, but eventually became a postman and began his building in April 1879.
He said about himself “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. I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and the architecture”
For the next thirty-three years, Cheval picked up stones during his daily mail round and carried them home to build the Palais Idéal. He spent the first twenty years 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. That is certainly dedication to a dream.
The Palais is a mix of different styles with inspirations from Christianity to Hinduism. Cheval bound the stones together with lime, mortar and cement. Personally, I don’t think the Palais is beautiful but it is a memorial to a dedicated and imaginative hard working soul; and this I love.
Cheval wanted to be buried in his palace but because that is illegal in France, he spent 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. “After completing my dream Palace at the age of seventy-seven and after thirty-three years of hard work I still found enough energy to create my tomb in the Parish cemetery. Again I worked hard for eight years. I was blessed with the health needed to complete this tomb called ‘The Tomb of silence and endless rest’ – at the age of 86.” (except from Cheval’s notebook No. 3). Do you think that older age should stop us from contributing or creating something great to society? I wish to still be contributing in a meaningful way to society in my older age… and volunteering for charities is a great way to start?
Ferdinand Cheval received acclamation and recognition in his lifetime from André Breton and Pablo Picasso; Anaïs Nin commemorated his work in an essay in 1932; German artist Max Ernst created a collage titled The Postman Cheval; and Ado Kyrou produced Le Palais Idéal, a short film about Cheval’s palace. What an amazing achievement for a postman who collected pebbles! He has created a lasting monument to determination, creativity and skill. Letting nothing stop him, he even created a final resting place for himself in his latter life. Are you following your passion? What will you leave for your family, friends and the wider community to remember you by? Simple can be grand as Ferdinand proves.
In 1969, André Malraux, the Minister of Culture, declared the Palais a cultural landmark and had it officially protected. I have not visited this landmark but have it on my ‘must see’ list. Have you been there? In 1986 Cheval was put on a French postage stamp. The Palace is open for visitors every day except Christmas Day, New Year’s Day and between 15 to 31 January each year.
Visit the official site for a full history, tour information with opening hours and costs and a great photo gallery here.
Are you encouraging your children to be passionate about what they enjoy and to share it with others? I am sharing my passion about France on my blog with the hope that it provides enjoyment and information to you my readers. I am also hoping to encourage you to follow your dream. Even the mundane can be magnificent. Be inspired… Annette xx
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If you would like a colourful children’s book about the postman and his palace, this book from Amazon might be for you. Affiliate disclosure statement below.