Of the fateful meeting with his muse Cheval wrote in his journal: “My foot had stumbled against a stone which almost made me fall: I wanted to know what it was. It was a stumbling block of such an unusual shape that I put in my pocket to admire it at my leisure. The next day I went back to the same place and found others that were even more beautiful. I thought: since nature wants to do the sculpture, I’ll do the masonry and the architecture.” Long reckoned a local oddbod – in his twenties he disappeared for six years, leaving his newly wed 17-year-old bride to explain to others she had no idea where he’d gone – he worked on his garden palace alone and collected his materials for the uninhabitable structure by taking a wheelbarrow on his rounds.
Cheval’s design and decorative flourishes were inspired by nature, and the postcards and early examples of illustrated magazines that he delivered. The similarities to some of Gaudí’s work are also undeniable. Details include animals such as octopuses, hind, caimans, camels, elephants, pelicans, bears, and birds, as well as giants, fairies, and mythological figures sourced from all over the world. The influence of Hindu and Christian architecture are evident, but Cheval had no formal training or affiliations with any artistic movements. In 1969, the Palais Idéal was classified as a Historical Monument and unique example of Naïve Architecture by the then French Minister for Cultural Affairs.
Cheval completed his baroque building in 1912, having used 3,500 bags of lime in the process. Once finished, and by then aged 78, he began work on his own tomb on the outskirts of the town, which in turn took eight years to complete. He was buried there in 1924. The Palais and its surrounding gardens were restored between 1983 and 1993, and were donated to the Hauterives municipality in 1984 by Cheval’s granddaughter, as she had no heirs. The Palais now receives over 150,000 visitors each year, and is open daily with rare exception.
Via Messyness Chic