Henry Darger: Artist, Outsider, and Protector of Children

Henry Darger Jr. was a self-taught American artist whose Magnus opus, a work of literature awash with many drawings, began at age 19. He is well known for his manuscript, titled “In the Realms of the Unreal”, which grossed over 15,000 single-spaced pages. It also includes a collection of more than 300 different paintings he used to illustrate his stories.

Part of his work captures serene scenes full of flowers, children, and magnificent creatures while the rest shows carnage and terror in which children are the main victims. His work also addressed slavery, innocence, destruction, and how good can triumph over all evil.

Most of Darger’s work uses mixed media along with impressive collage use. Although he is considered an outsider, his work is famous around the world and among the most celebrated.

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Henry Darger Career

Henry Darger is perhaps one of the many people who moved through life quietly. In 1905, aged 13, Darger was sent to live in an asylum. During that time, he would do menial jobs at nearby farms to earn a living.

The beginning of Darger’s epic work seems to be around 1909, which is when the story of “Vivian Girls” was born. He took more than ten years to complete it, and in 1912, he began typing it into a manuscript.

In 1916, aged 24, he began writing his famous literal work “Realms of the Unreal.” However, this was a time when many countries were at war with each other, and there was a need for soldiers. He was drafted into the army in 1918 and dismissed a year later due to poor eyesight.

Desperate to make ends meet, Darger sought employment at the St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he performed duties such as dishwashing and cleaning latrines for the sisters. In 1922, Darger went to work at Chicago’s Grant Hospital.

After 23 years as a janitor, he enlisted for national service and in 1947 moved to Alexia Brothers Hospital in Chicago. His duties included rolling bandages and dishwashing.

Towards the end of 1963, Darger was forced into retirement because of poor health. It was a difficult time for him because he found it almost impossible to survive on social security. However, that did not discourage his spirit because three years after retirement, he began writing “The History of My Life.”  

Age and sickness caught up with him, and in 1972, he decided to live out his life at the Little Sisters of the Poor. After six months of battling poor health, his life ended. Nevertheless, his death revealed an archive of literary works that went ahead to correct a common misconception that he wasn’t a good draftsman.

Key Ideas

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As an artist, Darger experimented with many different techniques to illustrate certain effects. For instance, he employed appropriation and collage, most of which he borrowed from the media.  

He was afraid his sketches wouldn’t be any good, so he freely commandeered pictures and images from other sources. He would trace images from comic books, magazines and print sources that he collected daily.

At some point, he used resized or photocopied poses borrowed from the media. In other cases, he merely glued reproductions straight onto his watercolor painting.

Darger’s style is Art Brut. Although he uses graphics common in popular media, his work encompasses art that is detached from cultural influences. Darger conjured an imaginary world in which dragons and girls entwine.

Sadly, he also depicted a world in which adults killed children.

His creations stem from his experiences. Although he did not have formal training in art, Darger used his own experiences as a reference rather than use the concept of fashionable or classical art.

His work, although considered sinister and whimsical by critics, illustrates peace, war as well as the concept of good versus evil. Darger depicted an imaginary world, inhabited by Glandelinians, in which the Vivian girls make it their mission in life to rescue children enslaved by adults.

In Darger’s view, the enslaved children represent every other innocent child around the world who is unclothed and whose vulnerability is highlighted by nakedness, youth, and innocence.

The artist had no confidence in his ability to capture the human figure with the stroke of a pen. Therefore, he often relied on cuttings from magazines, print sources and comic books.  In some cases, he would go as far as attaching cuttings onto his paintings to illustrate his point.

His other works had photocopied images or resized pictures from popular print media.

All his art had the same message. Realm of the Unreal is a work of fiction about an imaginary work in which adults massacre children. Children, the Vivian girls, take it upon themselves to rescue the oppressed.

Crazy House is about the life of the Vivian girls in Chicago, where kids are kidnapped and later killed. His last work, “The History of My Life”, is about the horrors caused by a tornado when he was a child.  Darger’s work focused on the brutality children experience in this world.

The subject matter in all of Darger’s work revolves around brutality and violence that children experience. His work features a fictional world and characters.

The artist went out of his way to emphasize that children are not safe in this world and the violence they experience is often caused by the world or nature itself, like in the case of the tornado.  

After his work came into the limelight, there were multiple interpretations of the images showing naked girls. Many people tagged him a fanatic or sadist, while some went as far as naming him the Poussin of pedophilia.  

Nevertheless, his art championed for the rights of children globally. It gave children independence and power. Adults everywhere were encouraged to show compassion toward children.

It is possible that through virtues such as empathy, Darger was hoping to reclaim most of his childhood.

Henry Darger Biography

Henry Joseph Darger Jr. was born in Chicago’s Illinois on 12 April 1892. As a child and throughout the rest of his life, he lived a reclusive life and worked as a janitor for a long time until his death.

At the age of four, his mother passed away while giving birth to his baby sister. She was later put up for adoption. As a child, much of his interaction with the neighbors involved fights or throwing ash into the eyes of other children.

However, as he documented in “The History of My Life,” he grew to love children. In fact, his greatest wish was to remain young forever, which he did, psychologically, until his death.  

His father remembered him as an academically exceptional child, although he also noticed a kind of peculiarity in Darger. As a result, in 1912, he was shipped off to a mental asylum, and the reason provided was he took part in “self-abuse.”  While at the mental asylum, he experienced emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

At the age of 17, he attempted to escape from the mental asylum. His third attempt was successful and he ran away to his grandmother who lived in Chicago. He got a job at the St. Joseph’s hospital, which also became his home between 1909 and 1922.

Somewhere between 1909 and 1912, Darger began putting an epic saga together by fashioning portraits for the leading characters and documenting text using longhand. In 1916, he began typing his manuscript, and 16 years later, he hand-bound volumes one to seven.

While serving as a janitor in 1917, he was drafted and went to help America fight its war. He didn’t like it there and was honorably discharged a year later because of eye problems. Shortly after that, he was employed by Grant Hospital.

He didn’t last long at Grant Hospital because a new supervisor, who was rivals with the old one didn’t like their close connection. Luckily, Darger got his old job back at St. Joseph’s, where he stayed until 1972 when he was forced to retire due to poor health. Six months later, he died.

His art collection was unearthed shortly after his death in 1972 by his proprietor while clearing his apartment. The proprietor found more than 300 watercolors, collage, pencils as well as carbon tracings stitched to albums.

Other discoveries included hand-bound and typewritten books, sheets of typewritten work, ledgers, and journals.

Henry Darger Art

While it’s a little difficult to chart Darger’s career as an artist and tag a date to each of his artwork, his influence is evident in today’s art. Here’s a list of Darger’s outstanding artwork.

In the Realms of the Unreal

Also known as, “The Story of the Vivian Girls.” It is a 15000 single line manuscript consisting of 15 volumes. About three of the volumes have watercolor paintings, illustrations, as well as graphics from coloring books and magazines.

This artwork is notable for its traced images clipped from catalogs and magazines – an illustrative technique he perfected over a number of years.

As the largest segment of Darger’s book, “In the Realms of the Unreal” captures the lives of the Vivian girls, inhabitants of Abbieannia who take part in ending child slavery propagated by Glandelinians and another notorious man named John Manley.

Darger’s “ In the Realms of the Unreal” is largely folklore and is set in a large foreign planet, whose moon is our earth.

Human characters in this work were rendered mainly through collage or photo enlargement. Among his favorite figures are little Annie Rooney and Coppertone. This artwork demonstrates Darger’s ability to choose colors suitable for a watercolor painting.

His use of images is not only evocative of daring escapades, torture and battle characteristic in films like “The Birth of a Nation,” but of events that took place throughout the Catholic’s past. In fact, Darger draws a parallel between early saints and the martyrdom of the children who are victimized in the story.

Like the declaration of independence, “In the Realms of the Unreal” encourages and champions for the right of children to be happy, play, dream of a bright future, and have an education.  

Crazy House

Tentatively captioned “Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago”, this is Darger’s second fiction containing about 10,000 hand-typed sheets. Although it came right after “The Realms,” Darger went on to extend the girls’ epic adventure a little further.

The storyline focuses on the lives of the Vivian girls and Penrod, their secret brother, in Chicago. The events in this piece take place during the same time as those in his first work.

It is a story about children living in a house haunted by ghosts and demons. Children walk into this house, disappear into thin air and later turn up dead.

The girls, who are princesses, live in extreme poverty and suffer greatly from mistreatment. Their eminence as archetypes of the Catholic scruples comes out vividly in this fictional story.

Darger is extremely radical in his description of demonic and human immorality as well as obstinate sexuality and violence such that his point is clear: society has a huge problem.

The History of My Life

Having had a difficult childhood, and ironically hoping he would remain young forever, Darger became interested in tracing his childhood frustrations. It led him to write “The History of My Life.”

This text spans more than eight well-crafted volumes, but only 206 sheets talk about his childhood. Like always, Darger could not resist the temptation to write fiction. The rest of the pages are filled with a story about a tornado named Sweet Pie.

Stuck to the cover of this book is a poster of Bob Dylan’s “Greatest Hit” album. During its time, this record idealized glitz, flower power, as well as an ideology that condemned violence. Again, Darger could not resist the temptation to appropriate other works.

The poster, together with the illustrative explosions and frantic clouds, are suggestive of a troubled childhood and pervasive aspects of his artwork.


There is an uncanny similarity between Henry Darger and Andy Warhol’s work. It is not yet known whether Darger picked some of Warhol’s style, but both exploited pop art. What is certain is since his death in 1972, many references have been made in contemporary culture to his work. For example, Sam Harris’ album “Interludes” includes has a song titled “The Hermit Darger.”  

Henry Darger References:


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