Henry Darger. Untitled (Overall flowers) (recto); Untitled (Beautiful girls sitting around with giant cactus in center) (verso). n.d. Watercolor and pencil on paper (recto and verso), 24 × 108" (61 × 274.3 cm). Gift of the artist’s estate in honor of Klaus Biesenbach. ©2017 Henry Darger/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

“I figure that it’s better to be a sucker who makes something than a wise guy who is too cautious to make anything at all.”

Henry Darger

In 1972, the retired custodian Henry Darger left his rented room in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago to move to a nursing home. The room had been his home for over four decades, and in it he left behind a trove that astonished his landlord: it included a six-volume weather journal, a 5,000-page autobiography, a 15,000-page novel, and several hundred drawings, paintings, and collages. Darger, his biographers believe, had never shown these works to anyone.

The most ambitious of Darger’s literary and artistic endeavors was his illustrated epic about an imaginary world of rival nations divided over the practice of child enslavement and exploitation, 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. In this sprawling tale of good and evil, the heroic Vivian Girls—daughters of the righteous ruler of Abbieannia—battle the evil Glandelinians, whom they despise for holding children in bondage. Darger is thought to have embarked on The Realms of the Unreal in the 1910s, likely adding illustrations of the Vivian Girls and their allies and adversaries from the 1920s or 1930s onward. He pictures a typically fraught episode from the saga in a pencil-and-watercolor drawing, adopting the bright colors, expressive gestures, propulsive action, and descriptive captions of the comic strips to which he turned for inspiration.

Darger found these comic strips—along with newspapers, magazines, advertisements, coloring books, and religious icons—on his walks through Chicago. Once in his room, he copied, traced, and cut and pasted the figures that intrigued him, whether from posters of Shirley Temple or prayer cards of the Madonna and Child. Next, he incorporated these figures into his own works, as in an expansive watercolor in which the Vivian Girls, tied to tree trunks, witness the slaughter of children by the Glandelinians. This work, like others by Darger, raises difficult interpretive questions. What are we to make of the frequent neglect, abuse, and sexualization of Darger’s young subjects? “Does the artist support this horror,” a curator has asked, “or does he condemn it?”1 Darger, a devout Catholic who was orphaned and institutionalized at an early age, regarded himself as a “protector” of children in adulthood and identified children as “more important to God than the grownups”2 in his autobiography. While early writing on Darger portrayed his preoccupation with children as the symptom of psychological trauma or mental illness, more recent accounts have explored the ways his work probes the violence—“racial, ethnic, and sexual violence,”3 scholar Michael Moon explains—rampant in 20th-century popular culture and often directed toward minors.

Though living and working in isolation, Darger intuited many strategies of 20th-century avant-gardes. Like Dada and Surrealist artists, for instance, he appropriated found images and produced startling compositions by juxtaposing unrelated found and made images. In one such composition, Darger pasted a clipped black-and-white photograph of a young girl with a shy smile and frilly dress in front of a magical creature, drawn and painted by hand, whose richly striped and stippled wings hover conspicuously in the background. Because Darger developed these techniques at a distance from art schools or communities, he has most often been described as an “outsider” artist, active beyond the traditional sites of art training, production, and display. Darger himself, however, had a different conception of his practice. In his introduction to The Realms of the Unreal, readers are invited to “find here many stirring scenes that are not recorded in any true history, great disasters that are awful in magnitude: enormous battles, big fires, awful tragedies, adventures of heroes and heroines.”4 Darger—at least in the world of The Realms—is the insider, illuminating triumphs and catastrophes excluded from “true history.”

Annemarie Iker, Mellon-Marron Research Consortium Fellow, 2021

Note: opening quote is from Klaus Biesenbach, introduction to Henry Darger, ed. Klaus Biesenbach (New York: Prestel, 2009), 23.

  1. Michel Thévoz, “The Strange Hell of Beauty…,” in Darger: The Henry Darger Collection at the American Folk Art Museum, ed. Brooke Davis Anderson (New York: American Folk Art Museum/Harry N. Abrams, 2001), 15.

  2. Henry Darger, “The History of My Life,” quoted in Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, ed. Michael Bonesteel (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 240.

  3. Michael Moon, Darger’s Resources (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 20.

  4. Henry Darger, “Introducing 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,” quoted in Henry Darger: Art and Selected Writings, ed. Michael Bonesteel (New York: Rizzoli, 2000), 43.

Wikipedia entry
Henry Joseph Darger Jr. ( DAR-ghər; April 12, 1892 – April 13, 1973) was an American writer, novelist and artist who worked as a hospital custodian in Chicago, Illinois. He has become famous for his posthumously recovered 15,145-page manuscript for a fantasy novel titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, along with several hundred drawings and watercolor illustrations for the story and two further works of literature. The visual subject matter of his work ranges from idyllic scenes in Edwardian interiors and tranquil flowered landscapes populated by children and fantastic creatures, to scenes of horrific terror and carnage depicting young children being tortured and massacred.: 106  Much of his artwork is mixed media with collage elements. Darger's artwork has become one of the most celebrated examples of outsider art.
Information from Wikipedia, made available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License
Getty record
Now considered one of the most notable American "outsider artists," Darger was a reclusive Chicago janitor whose work was discovered after his death by his landlord. He spent some of his early life in and out of an asylum, and by 1920, had begun work on his epic "The Story of the Vivian Girls in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal or the Glandelinian War Storm or the Glandico-Abbienian Wars as Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion" (also known as "Realms of the Unreal") - a 13,000 page mixed-media work with elaborate, cartoon-like watercolor illustrations. At the time of his death, he was at work on an autobiography, which had reached upwards of 2,600 pages.
Artist, Writer, Naive Artist, Illustrator, Painter
Henry Darger, Henry J. Darger
Information from Getty’s Union List of Artist Names ® (ULAN), made available under the ODC Attribution License


15 works online



If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

MoMA licenses archival audio and select out of copyright film clips from our film collection. At this time, MoMA produced video cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. All requests to license archival audio or out of copyright film clips should be addressed to Scala Archives at [email protected]. Motion picture film stills cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For access to motion picture film stills for research purposes, please contact the Film Study Center at [email protected]. For more information about film loans and our Circulating Film and Video Library, please visit https://www.moma.org/research/circulating-film.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication, please email [email protected]. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to [email protected].


This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to [email protected].