One day in 1879, Joseph Ferdinand Cheval, forty-three years of age, decided to build himself a palace. He was a postman in Hauterives in southeastern France. He began to gather stones during his daily rounds and bind them together using lime, mortar and cement. He drew inspiration eclectically—from religions, history and imagery from across the world. In 1912, he was seventy-six years old and his Ideal Palace (Palais Idéal) was complete. People thought him insane. He, too, often espoused this view as a possibility. It was only near the end of his life that his chef-d’œuvre was recognized as such, by figures such as André Breton, Anaïs Nin and Pablo Picasso among others. Cheval carved the following lines on the walls of the Palace’s northern façade:
Cette merveille dont l’auteur peut être fier,
Sera unique dans l’Univers.
Its creator’s pride, this marvel
In the Universe will be unparalleled.
This is the second and final part of my translation of Cheval’s autobiography1.
The translation, part II (continued from Part I)
In this hecatomb (hécatombe), you will find all manner of things that I have sculpted myself, as in primitive times, such as cedars, elephants, bears, shepherds on the heath, waterfalls, all kinds of shells and animals.
In the second labyrinth, still adjoining the gallery, are figures from antiquity, seven in number; below—ostriches, flamingoes, geese and eagles.
The sculptures are so strange that one feels one is in a dream.
Above the hecatombs (hécatombes), still between the east and west, and in the middle of the Palace, at a height of 4 meters, is a large terrace, 23 meters long and 3 meters wide, with stairs leading to it that allow one, on one side, to climb up to the tower of barbarism; on the other side, one may reach the top of a little genie who lights up the world.
One reaches the terrace via four winding staircases that seem as if carved out of rock.
The façade is built of stone (pierre de rachat)2, exceedingly hard, which forms all manner of strange shapes, some animal-like, wrought by the elements, many shaped as spheres.
The middle of the façade is made of the first stones I found. They represent a waterfall. I took two years to make it. The little cave to the side—three years. The large cave with three giants, is somewhat Egyptian. The two female figures above it are the druidess Veleda and Inize.
Also at the side, still to the left, I had begun a Druid tomb, but the lack of the specific type of stone prevented me from finishing it. I took four years to complete this part.
Below the tower of barbarism is an oasis, where prickly pears, cacti, palms and olive trees are represented, guarded by an otter and a cheetah.
To the right, where you see four columns, is a tomb that I carved, as if out of rock, where I shall have myself buried in the manner of the Pharaohs.
Underground is a vault at a depth of 3 meters, containing two coffins in stone, their lids in the manner of the Saracens, and with double doors in iron and stone.
Above the vault, which corresponds to the gallery, are figures and many sculptures, a crèche with all manner of shells that have a dazzling effect. This tomb is made in the style of Hindu temples; the subjects are Christian. One sees two stone crowns. In the middle of the rock, the cave of the Virgin Mary, the four Evangelists, a calvary, Death and Abundance, pilgrims, angels. At the top, the mortuary urn, above it a little genie made of little balls of very hard stone (also a type of rachat). It measures 10.8 meters in height, its length is 5 meters, its width 4 meters. I took seven years to build it.
The north façade, made of tufa with river stones, has a base with little caves. One sees many things there as well: pelicans in stone or fashioned by me, a stag, a doe, a little fawn, a crocodile. The right has stones that resemble animals, the left, a little feudal castle. These northern and eastern façades cost me twenty years of effort.
In the western façade, with its vases, you find an Arab mosque with its crescent moon and minarets. It is the entrance to the Imaginary Palace (Palais Imaginaire). You see below a Hindu temple, a Swiss chalet. Further on is the White House, the Maison-Carrée of Algiers and, finally, a castle from the Middle Ages.
The southern façade, that you see also surmounted by two aloes, has its cupola and a tree trunk above some stones that resemble animals.
Below is my antediluvian museum, where I keep my flints and river stones (pierres diluviennes). These two façades, south and west, cost me another six years of effort.
Hope, patience and perseverance. I withstood all—the weather, criticism and the years.
The cost of the Palace is not very much, my work not counting for anything. I constructed it during my spare time, in my leisure moments left me by my service as a postman.
When I left the postal service to retire, I had constructed my home and had encircled my Palace with high walls. I cultivate and maintain my enclosure so that visitors, who take up some of my time, find everything in harmony with my Palace. I accompany them to explain in detail what they see.
I bought absolutely nothing but lime and cement. I used around 3500 sacks for my Palace alone, which represents a sum of 5000 francs.
The monument as a whole is around 1000 cubic meters of masonry.
When I began this work, I was forty-three years old; today, I am in my sixty-ninth year."
The source of the French text is Cheval, Ferdinand. “Autobiographie du Facteur Cheval et Description du Palais Idéal,” In Jean, André (editor). Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval à Hauterives (Drôme). Documents recueillis par André Jean. Montpellier: Causse, Graille & Castelnau. 1937: 7-14. ↩︎
Translator’s note: I have not yet been able to find a translation for Cheval’s term here, viz. “pierre de rachat,” apparently a type of stone that is very hard and often takes on spherical forms. ↩︎