The Unknown Artist Who Was a Janitor

February 20, 2023

A work by Henry Darger dionyssos1/Flickr

Henry Darger worked for most of his life as a janitor and dishwasher at three different Chicago hospitals. He was frequently spotted picking through garbage, which he would take into his apartment. He was also known for attending a Catholic Mass four to five times a day and largely kept to himself.

Near the end of his life, Darger was moved into a nursing home, and the landlord of his one-bedroom Chicago apartment went to clean out the man’s home shortly before he died in 1973. He was shocked at what he found.

Within the mass of things Darger had collected over the years were two trunks, and in them were Darger’s life works. One work was an eight-volume, 5,000-page written piece titled The History of My Life along with several diaries that detailed his everyday events and his prolific Mass attendance. There was also a weather journal that covered a span of 10 years from December 31, 1957, to December 31, 1967.

The biggest surprise to come out of the trunks, however, was Darger’s 15,145-page typewritten manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, or what has been come to be known as In the Realms of the Unreal. The fantasy epic was 13 volumes long and had three additional volumes that contained 300 watercolor and collage paintings that illustrated the story. This art is what the reclusive man became best known for.

darger 2
One of only three known pictures of Henry Darger

The unsettling story of In the Realms of the Unreal was about a fantasy world that had been destroyed by war. The heroes of the story were children, particularly young girls, and the villains were usually adults. Darger even created a handwritten 10,000-page sequel to his fantasy epic titled Crazy House: Further Adventures in Chicago.

Darger’s landlords, Nathan and Kiyoko Lerner, took charge of Darger’s estate after his death in 1973 since the man had no family. Nathan Lerner had been a prominent Chicago photographer and began to work publicizing Darger’s art.

Darger is considered one of the most significant self-taught artists of the 20th Century, and the American Folk Art Museum currently holds the largest repository of his works. Darger’s art can reportedly fetch upwards of $750,000.

Sources: Folk Art Museum, PBS, New York Times

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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