Ferdinand Cheval was a French postman in the late-19th century, who worked for the post office of Hauterives, a city located in the Drôme department (Eastern France). His everyday mail round was about 33-kilometers long across the countryside. But one day of April 1879, he tripped over a stone and fell from his bike. Nothing serious, fortunately: he got back on his feet and had the curiosity to lean over the guilty stone, in order to examine it more precisely.
It was, indeed, a curiously-shaped stone. Ferdinand put it in his pocket and took it back home. He probably did not know at the time, but this fall was the very first step forwards the project that would take his next 33 years of life. The next day, he came back at that spot and investigated the area, looking for more stones to collect. He remarked their unusual shape, and would write later that they were “so strange that it is impossible for man to imitate”.
He then remembered a dream he had had several time ago; some night, he dreamt that he was building a monumental palace. Day after day on his mail routine, Ferdinand had forgotten about his sleepy architect counterpart, but these findings were so uncommon that they inspired him to give it a go. “I said to myself: since Nature is willing to do the structure, I will do the masonry and the architecture”.
Ferdinand therefore started to collect stones in his pockets during his mail round. After a while, he used a basket, then a wheelbarrow: more and more stones were piled up in his garden. Without any construction background, he reproduced, day after day, the palace he had dreamt of. Until, thirty-three years later, it was eventually finished.
The result was astonishing: 24-meters high, inspirations taken from Egyptian, Roman, Hindu architectures, including waterfalls, animal sculptures, some covered with vegetation – a mosaic of shapes and styles made up the “Palais Idéal” (Ideal Palace). Ferdinand, aged 77, asked to be buried in the structure when he dies, but the French law disapproved; the tireless postman spent the next eight years building his own grave in the local cemetery, where he has been buried soon after completing it.
The realization of these structures is regarded today as a milestone (no pun intended) in the recognition of naïve art, that is to say creations made by people with no preliminary training or education in such a discipline.
Moral: you won’t fulfill your dream if you don’t fall first.