A couple weeks ago I had the chance to escape New York City for a trip to France to see some friends. We spent some days in Paris enjoying the city’s food and sites and even a few of the more unknown attractions, such as the underground catacombs–not the ones mobbed by tourists. We also had the chance to travel to the French Alps, to charming towns near Grenoble. Along the way we stopped to see one of the most unusual buildings ever constructed, a prime example of naive, or outsider art. The site is Le Palais Idéal, built by Ferdinand Cheval in the town of Hauterives. At first glance it appears to be a confusing mish-mosh of architectural styles from all regions of the earth. And that is exactly what Le Palais Idéal, intentionally.
Cheval was in every way the perfect subject to create his work of outsider art. He had not stepped anywhere near the famous art academies; he had no contact with famous artists when he began his building his visionary structure. He was simply a local postal worker in Hauterives, who had only gone to school until the age of 13 before starting work at a bakery. Each day he would deliver the mail to the residents in the town and the surrounding area, walking long distances on his route. As he walked, he would glance at the magazines and postcards he was delivering to the residents. Inside the magazines he saw images of foreign, exotic locales that he kept in his mind. He saw early Indian buildings decorated with Hindu gods and goddesses. he saw the monuments in Washington, D.C., the primitive buildings of Polynesian peoples.
These images remained in his head until one day on his route when Cheval stumbled upon an unusual rock that caught his eye. He began collecting these unusual rocks, finding more of them at the same location. These rocks serve as the first building elements of Le Palais Idéal. With them Cheval decided he would spend his nights working by oil lamp and creating what in his mind was the perfect architectural style, a combination of all he had seen in the magazines and postcards he delivered. This project, which soon incorporated cement, lime and mortar took Cheval 33 years and all the work occurred without his neighbors noticing. Cheval completed Le Palais Idéal in 1912, adn not long after he began work on his tomb, an equally elaborate but smaller structure in the same town that took 8 years for Cheval to complete. He died in 1924, shortly after completing his grave.
In the final stages of Le Palais Idéal’s construction, Cheval began to garner the interest of big profile artists of the period. Picasso, then the biggest artist in all of Europe, was inspired by the palace, along with Andre Breton, the father of Surrealism and