Henry Darger was a fascinating example of “outsider art” (a term I consider bougie and condescending, but that’s a debate for another time!) He also had a very sad life. Born in Chicago in 1892, he lost his mother at four and lived with his father (a kind man) until 1900, when his father was so ill he was taken to St. Augustine’s Home for the Aged. Darger was moved to an orphanage, but only became an actual orphan in 1905 when his father died. Then, Darger was institutionalized. His diagnosis? “Little Henry’s heart is not in the right place”.
The asylum he was placed in practiced forced labor and severe punishments, though he said there were some good times as well. Darger escaped in 1908 and became a custodian at a Catholic hospital, where he worked until his retirement.
Darger lived a fairly regimented life: he went to Mass, he worked, and he spent most of his time alone. He had one close friend, with whom he talked at length about various ways to protect children, and who he kept a close correspondence with until the friend died in 1959.
Over the course of 43 years, Darger wrote and illustrated, in drawings and watercolor, a 15,145 page, single-spaced manuscript titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Many of the paintings were made on recycled paper from magazines and coloring books, and some were are large as 30 feet wide. I’m just going to steal the basic plot description from Wiki:
“(It) follows the adventures of the daughters of Robert Vivian, seven princesses of the Christian nation of Abbieannia who assist a daring rebellion against the child slavery imposed by John Manley and the Glandelinians. Darger wrote of children’s right “to play, to be happy, and to dream, the right to normal sleep of the night’s season, the right to an education, that we may have an equality of opportunity for developing all that are in us of mind and heart.”
Darger died in the same place his father did: St Augustine’s Home for the Aged. His works were discovered after his death, and all his fame happened posthumously.
For anyone interested in learning more about Darger, I cannot recommend the documentary “In the Realms of the Unreal” enough.