Henry Darger was born on April 12, 1892 in Chicago, Illinois. His early life was marred by tragedy when his mother died giving birth to a sister, whom Darger never saw as she was immediately adopted. Due to failing health, Darger’s father was unable to look after his son and at the age of 8 the boy was put into care. Behavioural problems led to Darger being placed in the Lincoln Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, Illinois in 1904, where Darger lived for 5 years, fully aware that he did not belong there.
Whilst at Lincoln, Darger received the news that his father had died. Darger attempted to escape from the Asylum and was successful at the third attempt, returning to Chicago in 1908, aged 17. He settled in the then largely German area surrounding St. Vincent de Paul Church, where he spent his entire working life as a hospital worker in local Catholic hospitals.
Darger’s secret creative output, though notoriously hard to date, appears to have begun when Darger was still in his teens, when he began his epic fiction the Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelininian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. He produced many other types of writing and artifacts, including the large double-sided watercolour paintings, or collage-drawings, for which he is best known.
From 1932, Darger lived at 851 Webster Avenue, and in later years the owner of this building was Nathan Lerner. Athough unaware of Darger’s activities, Nathan Lerner was, by a remarkable coincidence, an artist, designer, photographer and educator, his home next door at 849 an unofficial cultural centre in the city. When Darger became infirm and unable to climb the stairs to his room, it was Lerner who helped him find a residential care home late in 1972. Henry Darger died in 1973.
Following the discovery of Darger’s secret life work, Nathan Lerner was instrumental in gaining recognition for Henry Darger as an artist and writer, and after Lerner’s death in 1997, that role fell to his widow, Kiyoko Lerner. As a result of their stewardship, 35 years after Darger’s death, Darger’s works are to be found in many collections including MOMA New York, the American Folk Art Museum, MCA Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne. Darger’s major writings are held in the Henry Darger Study Center at the American Folk Art Museum, and Darger’s room environment has been recreated as the Henry Darger Room Collection at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art in Chicago. Darger has been the subject of numerous books, including monographs by Michael Bonesteel and the monumental study by John M. MacGregor, and has inspired countless works by others in art, music, film, poetry and theatre.
Henry Darger’s art and writings © Kiyoko Lerner