The Facteur Cheval

The Ideal Palace of the postman Cheval is a monument of naive art, classified by André Malraux [1] as a historic monument in 1969. You can visit it in Hautrives which is in the Department of La Drôme. It is a tourist curiosity which deserves a visit [2].

Ferdinand Cheval (1836-1924) was really a postman but the palace which he built in his garden was a fantasy palace, a truly dreamlike palace.

It is a building 12 metres long and 26 metres wide and 14 metre high which represents all the main works of humanity according to Ferdinand Cheval. They say that he was inspired but the postcards that he used to deliver. they say that he had made a trip to Algeria from which he kept a taste for the exotic… They say lots of things…

It is a complete invention… he used to read a lot.

Yes! But what is sure, though scarcely believable, is the way in which he built his palace.

He was a postman who used to go out every morning to do his round of 32 kilometres. He had a dream and it was to build a castle or a palace in harmony with nature and civilisations and one day he stumbled upon a rock which had a very remarkable form and he took it…

What a curious coincidence. From that discovery onwards he then transported the rocks which he used to spot, in a wheelbarrow, he used to bring them to his garden, tirelessly.

He assembled his rocks with lime, because cement, well there was very little of it, and so, there are some of them, of some colours which he then painted or which he found like that. And the sea shells, that was his cousin who was from Marseilles who used to send to him… so with the oysters, lots of sea shells.

The four faces of the building are decorated with very varied representations, and disordered, if we can say that. It is as if chronological and geographical order did not count in his eyes. The only importance was witnessing the realization. You find a Hindu temple beside a Swiss chalet, then the Square House, the statue of Socrates, Adam & Eve, Archimedes, Vercingétorix [3], all brightened up by poems written by him, by sentences, by prayers.

“A beneficent genius drew me out of oblivion”, or, “Weakness and strength are equal before death”, or “From a dream, I drew the queen of worlds”.

With each step, the visitor discovers a new enchanting detail.

The inside is a sort of cave with two chambers face to face, in one of them are laid the tools and the famous wheel barrow, above which are written the words [4]:

I am the faithful helper
Of the worker astute
Who each day in his shelter
Looks for his little recruit.

In the other chamber, postman Cheval wanted to be buried, a little like a pharaoh, a thing that was not allowed. We read there: “I wanted to sleep here”.

The discovery of this little place can provide several different reactions, being from ironic surprise to admiration. You leave this place thinking, while passing a rock, a last inscription “Life without a goal is a wild dream”. In that case is perhaps a real palace, the Ideal Palace of the postman Cheval.

We have on average 135,000 visitors, or thereabouts, each year.

People are very moved by discovering the work of this strange personality. It is not hard to imagine the postman Cheval, then, busy doing his work for more than thirty years.

[1] André Malraux – Minister of Culture in France 1962-1969

[2] Le Facteur Cheval – http://www.facteurcheval.com

[3] Vercingétorix – Gallic hero in Roman times

[4] Translator’s note – to make the rhyme in English, I have taken liberties with the text.

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