Henry Darger was born in Chicago, Illinois, to Rosa Fullman and Henry Joseph Darger, Sr. At four years old, his mother died while giving birth to his sister, who was then immediately given up for adoption. By 1900 his crippled and impoverished father, no longer able to care for young Henry, placed him in a Catholic boys’ home. When his father died in 1905, Henry was institutionalized at the Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln.
The Lincoln asylum’s practices included forced labor and severe punishments, a theme that would later occur throughout Darger’s work. A series of attempted escapes ended successfully in 1908, when the 16-year-old Darger returned on foot to Chicago. He found menial employment in a Catholic hospital and continued to support himself in this fashion until his retirement in 1963. He attended mass every day, often several times a day, but otherwise led a solitary life.
Unknown to everyone, Darger spent six decades creating a massive literary and graphic body of work. Central to Darger’s work is his 15,145-page epic, entitled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Hundreds of paintings illustrate the Realms of the Unreal, some on scrolls 10 feet long. Darger’s paintings, as well as the passages of the Realms of the Unreal they illustrate, are at times disturbingly violent. Often employing collage or traced figures, Darger’s keen sense of composition and use of vivid color allowed him to create landscapes, battle scenes, and portraits of incredible intensity and beauty.
Darger’s landlords, Kiyoko and Nathan Lerner, came across his work shortly before his death and immediately recognized its artistic merit. Darger passed away in 1973 in a Catholic mission operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor. He lay for more than 20 years in an umarked grave. In 1996, Lerner purchased a headstone engraved, “Artist, Protector of Children.” Darger remains today one of the most famous figures in the history of outsider art and is widely referenced in popular culture.