Ferdinand Cheval, the creator of Palais Idéal, was born in 1836 in Charmes-sur-l’herbasse, a village near Hauterives, France. He worked as a rural postman for most of his life.
In 1879, at the age of 43, Cheval stumbled over a rock during one of his mail delivery runs. Inspired by the rock’s unusual shape, Cheval began his dream of creating a palace. He worked on Palais Idéal for 33 years, and it took approximately 3,500 bags of lime to construct the palace.
Cheval wrote the following about his idea:
“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.”*
Cheval was not formally trained in architecture. It is thought that he found inspiration for his palace in a popular illustrated magazine called Le Magasin pittoresque (1833-1938), which he probably encountered during his mail runs. The publication allowed him to learn about different forms of architecture in the world, which he incorporated into his unique creation. The below image of a cathedral in Mexico City appeared in the 1853 publication of Le Magasin pittoresque.
Cheval died in 1924 and was buried at Palais Idéal. The site has been recognized as a cultural landmark by the Minister of Culture. Several notable artists have also given recognition to Cheval for his work, including Picasso and Max Ernst.