In a Sleepy French Town, a Postman Built a Surrealist Palace out of Pebbles
It started with a stubbed toe.
Postman Ferdinand Cheval led an uneventful life in rural France. But according to his memoir, that would change drastically, one day in 1879, when he tripped on a rock while walking his mail route. Struck by the stone’s “bizarre and yet picturesque shape,” he pocketed it and vowed to collect more. For the next 34 years, Cheval gathered rocks everyday, carted them home, and used them to build one of the globe’s strangest and most extraordinary structures: Palais Idéal.
Palais Idéal (or Ideal Palace) rises like a mirage from a plot of land in the small, sleepy town of Hauterives, France. It resembles a fairytale castle erected to shelter an eccentric king, or an abandoned, seaside alcázar encrusted with barnacles. It became a site of pilgrimage for radical modern artists from Max Ernst to Pablo Picasso. And today, its slender spires, towering caryatids, and fantastical cupolas—all forged painstakingly from concrete, limestone, wire, and countless stones—draw over 120,000 visitors per year.
But Cheval’s concoction wasn’t always regarded favorably. When he began the project, in 1879 at the age of 43, “tongues started to wag in my home town and surrounding area,” he wrote in his memoir. “They quickly made their minds up: ‘He’s an old fool who fills his garden with stones.’” Cheval wasn’t phased by critics who deemed him crazy, though, and his palace continued to grow. On one of its walls, he embedded a plaque commemorating his mission: “With this rock, I wanted to prove what willpower can achieve.”
Cheval wasn’t a trained artist or architect. His journey to realize Palais Idéal was circuitous and guided by prophetic visions.
Born in 1836 in Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse, France, to a peasant family, Cheval had limited schooling and later apprenticed with a baker. Beyond this, records detailing his youth are scant, and offer no clues regarding his future as a self-taught sculptor-cum-architect of fantastical forms.
His life took its first unexpected turn, however, after he married 17-year-old Rosalie Revol in 1858. One night, he awoke from a transcendent dream in which he had contrived a castle from rocks. Not long after, he left his home (and his new wife) without any word of where he was going. He would return six years later in 1863.
To this day, Cheval’s whereabouts during this period remain a mystery, but some historians conjecture that his experiences during the sejour (perhaps, in Algeria where he might have glimpsed Moorish architecture) inspired the design of Palais Idéal. Indeed, it was only after Cheval returned home that he had his fateful run-in with the rock—and was provoked to begin realizing the structure that sprang into his dreams long before.
The process was slow. First, he collected rocks in his pockets. But after his wife tired of mending the holes in his pants, he graduated to baskets. And when those could no longer contain his ever-mounting cache of pebbles, a wheelbarrow became his most trusted companion.
After long days on the mail route, Cheval schlepped his load home (“Sometimes I did 5 or 6 kilometres, and when I was loaded up I carried them on my back,” he wrote). He began to transform the stones into otherworldly shapes. “Since Nature provided me with sculptures I shall become an architect and a mason (besides who isn’t a bit of a mason?),” he once wrote.
Cheval broke ground by digging a pool, which he encircled with a menagerie of sculpted animals. The creation of bubbling waterfalls and gnarled caves followed. And from that base, he constructed many-tiered towers spangled with accretions resembling writhing coral, voluptuous fruits, and petrified palms. Elsewhere, naked cherubs perched on soaring arches, three-story-tall stone men guarded lofty turrets, and twisting stairways led to conga lines of gargoyles. Other figures were inspired by Hindu gods and Egyptian mummies, which he likely learned about in the pages of the popular French magazine Le Magasin pittoresque.
As the structure grew, he also scrawled poetic phrases into its wet concrete surfaces. In one nook, he embedded what could be interpreted as his lonely, albeit proud mantra: “The work of one man.” To Cheval, not even his wildest visions were unachievable: “I thought of Napoleon who said the word ‘impossible’ does not or should not exist. Since then, I agree with him. The word impossible no longer exists.”
When Cheval finally deemed the palace complete—34 years later, in 1912, when he was 75 years old—it towered at 33 feet tall (at its highest point) and 85 feet wide. (For comparison, that’s about the size of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon chateau on the grounds of Versailles.)
Critical reception has changed over the course of its creation. Foreigners, in particular, were attracted to the project, and word spread. “Criticized by the locals, but encouraged by foreign visitors, I did not lose heart,” he once wrote.
Not long after, the Surrealist movement emerged to the north of Cheval’s palace, in Paris. And artists began to hear whispers of his wondrous creation.
Filmmaker and writer Jacques-Bernard Brunius happened upon Palais Idéal in 1928, and brought word of it back to his community in Paris. Surrealism founder André Breton made the trip, as did photographers Lee Miller, Robert Doisneau, and Brassaï, who all shot Cheval’s chef d’oeuvre. Max Ernst went, too, and created the collage The Postman Cheval (Le Facteur Cheval) (1932) in response. Today, it hangs in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice. And Picasso made a series of 12 sketches in 1937, after his trip to Hauterives; one clearly references the towering nude women that Cheval sculpted into Palais Idéal’s facade.
Cheval was even included, albeit tangentially, in the Museum of Modern Art’s groundbreaking 1936 exhibition “Fantastic Art, Dada, Surrealism.” A photo of the palace hung in the installation.
The list of artists inspired by Palais Idéal goes on. Marguerite Duras, Jean Tinguely, and Pablo Neruda made pilgrimages. Poet John Ashbery and artist Niki de Saint Phalle went together in the 1950s; he called it “a memory which is also a dream,” and she later made a collage in Cheval’s honor, l’Hommage au Facteur Cheval (1962).
Cheval passed away in 1924, before he could see the Surrealists crown him a hero. But he did receive recognition during his life for the palace he forged from a mix of stones, willpower, and an ambitious imagination. Near the end of his days, tourists came in droves.
In Cheval’s memoir, he would call the rock he tripped on that fateful day in 1879 his “stumbling block.” It was an obstacle that would inspire the passionate creation of the world’s singular Palais Idéal.