Meet Henry Darger, the Most Famous of Outsider Artists, Who Died in Obscurity, Leaving Behind Hundreds of Unseen Fantasy Illustrations and a 15,000-Page Novel

In his cheeky inven­tion of a char­ac­ter called Mar­vin Pon­ti­ac, an obscure West African-born blues­man, the avant-garde com­pos­er and sax­o­phon­ist John Lurie cre­at­ed “a wry and pur­pose­ful sendup of the ways in which crit­ics can­on­ize and wor­ship the dis­en­fran­chised and bedev­iled,” Aman­da Petru­sich writes at The New York­er. Lurie’s satire shows how the crit­i­cal fetish for out­sider artists has a per­sis­tent empha­sis: a hyper­fo­cus on “mis­shapen yet per­va­sive ideas” about class, race, edu­ca­tion, and abil­i­ty as mark­ers of prim­i­tive authen­tic­i­ty.

The term “out­sider art” can sound patron­iz­ing and even preda­to­ry, laden with assump­tions about who does and who does not deserve inclu­sion and agency in the art world. Out­sider art gets col­lect­ed, exhib­it­ed, cat­a­logued, and sold, usu­al­ly accom­pa­nied by a semi-mythol­o­gy about the artist’s fringe cir­cum­stances. Yet the artists them­selves rarely seem to be the pri­ma­ry ben­e­fi­cia­ries of any largesse. In the case of the fic­tion­al Mar­vin Pon­ti­ac, his sta­tus as “dead and hereto­fore undis­cov­ered” makes the ques­tion moot. The same goes for the very real and per­haps most famous of out­sider artists, whose life sto­ry can some­times make Lurie’s Pon­ti­ac seem under­writ­ten by com­par­i­son.

Reclu­sive hos­pi­tal cus­to­di­an Hen­ry Darg­er spent his ear­ly years, after both par­ents died, in an orphan­age and the Illi­nois Asy­lum for Fee­ble-Mind­ed Chil­dren. He spent his almost com­plete­ly soli­tary adult life in a sec­ond-floor room on the North Side of Chica­go, attend­ing Mass dai­ly (often sev­er­al times a day), before pass­ing away in 1973 in the same old age home in which his father died. He had one friend, left only four pho­tographs of him­self, and his few acquain­tances were nev­er even sure how to pro­nounce his last name (it’s a hard “g”). In his last diary entry, New Year’s Day, 1971, Darg­er wrote, “I had a very poor noth­ing like Christ­mas. Nev­er had a good Christ­mas all my life, nor a good new year, and now… I am very bit­ter but for­tu­nate­ly not revenge­ful, though I feel should be how I am.”

So much for “out­sider.” As for the label “Artist”—inscribed on his pauper’s grave (along with “Pro­tec­tor of Children”)—Darger shocked the art world, who had no idea he even exist­ed, when his land­lord dis­cov­ered the type­script of an unpub­lished 15,000-page fan­ta­sy nov­elThe 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. Also in his apart­ment were a 8,500 fol­low-up, Fur­ther Adven­tures of the Vivian Girls in Chica­go, and sev­er­al hun­dred “panoram­ic ‘illus­tra­tions,’” notes the “offi­cial” Hen­ry Darg­er web­site: “many of them dou­ble-sided and more than 9 feet in length.”

These works, we learn in the PBS video at the top, “The Secret Life of Hen­ry Darg­er,” now reg­u­lar­ly sell for hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars. Darg­er, it seems, nev­er meant for any­one to see them at all. Per­haps for good rea­son. His work leaves “a set of con­tra­dic­to­ry impres­sions,” Edward Gómez writes at Hyper­al­ler­gic, “a cel­e­bra­tion of child­hood ful­some­ness and a whiff of pedophil­i­ac per­ver­sion.” The lat­ter impres­sion seems to have less to do with crim­i­nal sex­u­al incli­na­tions than with con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al per­cep­tions about child­hood. Com­pare Darg­er’s work, for exam­ple, with Lewis Car­rol­l’s obses­sion with chil­dren, alarm­ing to us now but not at all unusu­al at the time.

Still, Darg­er’s hun­dreds of “draw­ings of naked, pre­pu­bes­cent girls whose bod­ies promi­nent­ly include male gen­i­tals” have raised all sorts of ques­tions. Crit­ics have point­ed to the obvi­ous influ­ence of Vic­to­ri­an chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture, but per­haps even more per­va­sive was Darg­er’s own painful child­hood, his con­sid­er­able dis­com­fort with the adult world, and his expressed desire to pro­tect chil­dren who might suf­fer sim­i­lar­ly (a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion shared by Charles Dick­ens). Learn about Darger’s trou­bled, trag­ic child­hood in the Down the Rab­bit Hole video biog­ra­phy above, and in these two por­traits, see why his work deserves—despite but not because of his mar­gin­al­i­ty and odd­ness, his being self-taught, and his desire for his art to disappear—the posthu­mous acclaim it has received. Like that quin­tes­sen­tial out­sider artist, William Blake, Darg­er left behind a dar­ing­ly orig­i­nal body of work that is as com­pelling and beau­ti­ful as it is dis­turb­ing and oth­er­world­ly.

To delve deep­er into Darg­er’s world, check out the 2004 doc­u­men­tary, The Realms of the Unre­al, which can be viewed on Youtube, or pur­chased on Ama­zon. The film’s trail­er appears below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Space of Their Own, a New Online Data­base, Will Fea­ture Works by 600+ Over­looked Female Artists from the 15th-19th Cen­turies

Near­ly 1,000 Paint­ings & Draw­ings by Vin­cent van Gogh Now Dig­i­tized and Put Online: View/Download the Col­lec­tion

Lewis Carroll’s Pho­tographs of Alice Lid­dell, the Inspi­ra­tion for Alice in Won­der­land

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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  • Paul Cleland says:

    I’ve been aware of Hen­ry Darg­er for a long time. His work IS Art. Just because we did­n’t see it while he was alive, there should be no doubt. Hus work has a trans­port­ing pow­er which imme­di­ate­ly declaims that.

  • F N Gamboa says:

    I first heard of him in a arti­cle in Art in Amer­i­ca in the 80’s and saw some in the 90’s. The sto­ry of him seems to have shift­ed dur­ing the years from being unknown to peo­ple in his build­ing, some art stu­dents , know­ing that he was mak­ing art . For all those jump­ing on the undis­cov­ered genius band­wag­on , I’m sure there are many more like him cre­at­ing with­out any spot­light . I liked that short sto­ry by Bukows­ki were he talks of dish­wash­ers work­ing on plays . Some peo­ple got­ta cre­ate

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