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Work of the Week: Man of Sorrows

Marion Perkins belonged to the rich community of artists and writers who congregated in and around Chicago’s Bronzeville community in the 1930s. Largely self-taught, he sculpted in the evenings and on weekends—often in stone salvaged from abandoned buildings—while working a string of menial full-time jobs. A committed Marxist, Perkins created figurative works of recognizable imagery in the tradition of public art and believed strongly in the power of art to convey ideals. The 1951 acquisition of Man of Sorrows by the Art Institute would be the high point of his short career, during which he participated in nearly one dozen invitational exhibitions at the museum, winning three awards of distinction.

An immense, solemn face carved in rough, glistening marble, Man of Sorrows depicts the suffering of a black Christ wearing a crown of veiny thorns. Imposing in its heft and scale, the sculpture balances exaggeration with restraint, the figure’s large, protruding eyes closed tightly and lips pursed in intense, contained agony. When asked to comment on Man of Sorrows at the 1951 Chicago and Vicinity exhibition, Perkins left little ambiguity about his intentions for the work, noting that “the reflection of the suffering of the Negro people in this head of Christ is an acid test of American democracy.” Many suspect that Perkins himself was the model for this and others of his male sculptures—powerful, strong, restrained, and calm despite a heavy sorrow.

Visit Man of Sorrows and other American artworks in Gallery 264.


Marion Perkins. Man of Sorrows, 1950. Pauline Palmer Prize Fund.