Joseph Ferdinand Cheval

Text read by Mary Peters

Michèle tells the story of a postman’s extraordinary legacy.



This is the true story of a simple man who dedicated his life to building a palace. Joseph Ferdinand Cheval was born in 1836 in Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse, a small village in the department Drôme between Lyon and Valence.

He grew up in a relatively poor peasant family. Having attended school for only a few years, he became a rural postman.

He was 43 years old, when in April 1879, during a postal round, Ferdinand Cheval stumbled upon a stone so bizarre that it awakened in him a dream. He devoted the next 33 years of his life to building on his own dream palace in his vegetable garden. He drew inspiration from nature, postcards and the first illustrated magazines he discovered when he distributed them.

He walked 30 km a day in the countryside to complete his rounds. He took the opportunity to pick up stones in his wheelbarrow, which never left him. Alone, misunderstood, he inscribed on his palace: “the work of one man.” His dream palace was completed in 1912.

It is an uninhabitable palace, with statues representing an incredible bestiary: octopus, doe, caiman, elephant, pelican, bears, birds … but also fairies, giants, waterfalls, and elements inspired by the architecture of all the continents.

This monument was built without any architectural rules. Unique in the world, the Ideal Palace has won the admiration of the Surrealists. In 1969, André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, classified it as a historical monument and naive art.

Cheval began with the east facade with a fountain in the centre, surrounded by a lion and a dog. Then he added fountains, caves, temples by accumulating stones, shells fixed in lime mortar. He also added an Egyptian tomb in which he hoped to be buried with his wife, but this would not be allowed. Then he erected a Hindu temple with 3 giants. He spent 20 years building this east facade.

On the south facade, he made a cave where he stored the stones for his future constructions.

On the west facade, Cheval reproduced buildings that he had only seen in magazines. He never travelled. He built a Swiss chalet, a Hindu temple, a medieval castle, a mosque, the White House, the Maison Carrée d ‘Alger.

Inside is a long gallery populated with animals in bas-reliefs.  There, Cheval engraved the poem “Your ideal, your Palace” by Émile Roux Parassac. That gave the palace its name: the Ideal Palace.

After constructing 3 stairs leading to the terrace, he started to build the north face, the last phase in this project.

We can read on the east facade his record that he engraved: “10,000 days, 93,000 hours, 33 years of trials, more obstinate than I set to work.”

Finally, Cheval rests with all his family in a tomb he took 8 years to build in the Hauterives cemetery near his village.

Ferdinand Cheval carried out an extraordinary project for one man. It is hardly believable! In his time already, tourists came to visit his masterpiece, and this continues today!