Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you come upon a place that speaks to you in a very special way. It’s a spot that might gladden the heart but also knock you down in amazement – stupéfait. That’s how I felt when I saw Le Palais Idéal in Hauterives, a village some 50 miles southeast of Lyon.
Built over 30 years – from 1879 to 1912 – by just one man following no particular architectural style except his own, Le Palais Idéal is best described as an example of naïve or outsider art. Le Palais Idéal consists of four facades, which form the quarters of a compass. It is part stone and cement; part towers and columns; part winding staircases and sculpted figures; and part inspired – even visionary – text.
It might remind you of a child’s sandcastle, or even of Cambodia’s magnificent temple, Angkor Wat. In awe of this enormous masterpiece I wondered, who was the creator of Le Palais Idéal?
Le créateur de Le Palais Idéal: a man possessed
Joseph-Ferdinand Cheval was born in Charmes-sur-l’Herbasse in the Drôme in 1836, the self-described son of a peasant. When he was around 30, he was appointed a rural postman in nearby Hauterives. One day, on his appointed rounds – some 20 miles per day, on foot – he happened upon a stone. He observed it was sandstone that had been eroded by water but hardened by the power of time. He wrapped it in his handkerchief, put it in his pocket, and took it home. He began collecting more beautiful pebbles, saying at one point to himself, “Since Nature is willing to do the sculpture, I will do the masonry and architecture.” At the age of 43, he began to build a dream house.
It was as if he were a man possessed. At first he formed animals, then constructed a waterfall he dubbed the ‘Source of Life’. He dug grottoes and started work on an Egyptian tomb. On the eastern face of the palace, he gave shape to three massive figures: Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician; the Roman general Julius Caesar; and Vercingétorix, the hero of the Gauls. Cheval referred to them as ‘les trois géants,’ the giants. He added a Hindu Temple and another that honoured Nature.
Sometimes Cheval carried stones for miles on his back, or worked night and day. Sometimes, his hands bled from handling the rough cement. Some of the villagers thought he was crazy, but he was undaunted and delighted with his creation, and word began to spread.
Recognition at last
In an undated letter (probably from 1897), Cheval wrote “Tourists came this year in great number, more than in past years, and they leave here filled with wonder at my monument.” He was 77 when he finally finished Le Palais Idéal. When he died in 1924, aged 88, he was buried in the parish graveyard, in the Temple of Silence – a tomb he had made himself.
Le Palais Idéal has inspired many artists, among them Pablo Picasso, Tinguely, Max Ernst and Niki de Saint-Phalle. The site was declared a Historical Monument in 1969 by André Malraux, the then French Minister for Cultural Affairs.
Are there examples of outsider art in France that have astonished you? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @MaVieFrancais
Source: Le Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval, by Jean-Pierre Jouve, Claude Prevost and Clovis Prevost, Editions A.R.I.E. Hédouville (France), 1994.All photos © Ronnie Hess