Seeking Cypia in 1950s Cybis

Cybis pieces produced during the 1950s are noticeably different from the post-1960 sculptures in several ways. One is that almost all of them were cast from commercially available molds, a topic more fully explored in When Is a Cybis Not a Cybis. Another is that a fair percentage of 1950s items were fully glazed, rather being bisque fired as all later sculptures are. And a third is the use of a paint technique that, according to later Cybis literature, was dubbed “Cypia.” (pronounced “SEE-pee-ah” and spelled as a play on the studio’s name)

The short Glossary on page 109 of the 1979 Cybis catalog describes it this way:

CYPIA – Bisque and glazed Cybis porcelains in ‘Sepia’ tonations. Few produced.

Well, at least that gives us a hint. Sepia is recognized as being various shades and tones of brown, often associated with photographs dating from the 1850s to the early 1900s. Such photos became extremely popular, and even today’s freebie photo editing software typically includes a sepia filter.

The 1971 Cybis in Retrospect exhibit catalog, which purportedly lists the various finishes in which certain pieces were known to have been made, only mentions ‘Cypia’ as a finish for the nativity items and the 11” high Holy Family. They are all described as having been made in “bisque white, Cypia and stained glass decoration.” The punctuation invites speculation: Should there have been a comma after Cypia? If so, that would mean they were done in three finishes: (1) plain white bisque (2) Cypia, and (3) “stained glass” described as rich colors and a high glaze. But if the comma omission was intentional, that means there were only two Nativity colorways: (1) plain white bisque and (2) sepia-tones with a glazed finish. Unfortunately Cybis in Retrospect is not a comprehensive reference and occasional conflicting information between it and later Cybis publications has been discovered.

Lacking any further light on the subject from the studio, we’re left to sleuth out for ourselves what Cypia pieces look like. There are a few obvious candidates and a couple of other possibilities as well.

Certainly Cypia

The Oremus Hands plaque is clearly a shoo-in to be Cypia. You can’t get much closer to a sepia-tone than this! As shown in the second photo, the outer edge of the plaque is black; this will become relevant as we look at more examples.

Ecce Homo from the 1950s. This was also made in plain white bisque.

This American Eagle in Cypia may (or may not) be the “color” version referred to in the 1978 Cybis catalog Appendix. It dates from the late 1950s.

Two views of the Woodland Bear Scene show that with the exception of two small clumps of slightly-blue-tinted ‘slate’, it’s entirely done in shades of brown.

These three 1950s religious sculptures – a Jesus bust, Saint Francis with Doves and Lambs, and an Immaculate Heart of Mary bust – all qualify for membership in the “Cypia Club.”  One could quibble that Saint Francis’ robe would be brown in any case, and that some of the leaves are dark green, but the overall effect is definitely sepia. Notice the black porcelain base section and keep it in mind. (Additional details about these three sculptures can be found in the Jesus Sculptures, Religious Studies, and Early Madonnas posts.)

The underside of a similarly colored Saint Francis provides a banquet of informational marks. There is the often-seen 1950s Cybis name-stamp in red paint; there is the sometimes-retained mold/design code (2085 for this piece) in grease pencil; there is a faded hand-painted Cybis name (redundant and one would think unnecessary because the stamped one is already there); and most importantly, the word “Cypia” in grease pencil! So here is proof that a Cypia piece can indeed include other colors as well.

A detail view of the base section of Saint Francis, showing tints of green as well as the browns.

The two accent colors on the Cypia Immaculate Heart of Mary are rusty red for the heart and blue for her eyes and inner veil.

In this photo, Saint Francis and the Bear Group have been joined by another Cypia-marked piece: the Valley Quail. One might think that because the quail’s paint colors are more intense, this might not be Cypia, but the marks on the underside prove otherwise.

Not only was the same base mold used for both Saint Francis and the quail, they are both marked as being Cypia. The Francis base is the one on the left. The quail is on the right and is signed Cybis inside the rectangle, B. Cybis in red paint, and also “Cypia” very faintly in pencil about midway between them.

kitten with ball by CYBIS circa 1950s view 1

This Kitten With Ball has only one additional color, which appears to be the same blue used on the ‘slates’ in the Woodland Bear Scene. Almost everything else is brown, often a very dark brown. Notice how the outside edge of the base section is much the darkest, almost approaching black.

BOXER dog ca 1950s by CybisAlthough it’s logical for a Boxer dog to be brown, the base section is definitely darker than one would expect, and it also has distinctly ‘black’ outer edges, corresponding to what we see in other examples. If this wasn’t meant to be Cypia it’s very close to it!

Here is an example of a Baby Owl in unglazed (bisque) Cypia. He was a late-1950s introduction (1957) and this is the only one I have ever seen in this finish; it may be from one of the very earliest production runs. The normal, familiar colorway is shown in the Owls post.

Here’s a great multi-colorway trio of the classic 1950s madonna bust Mother Most Admirable, with a bisque Cypia version at the far left. Notice the gold accent on her collar.

1950s pieta in cypia decoration by CYBISThis Pieta, although much lighter in tone than any of these other pieces, still qualifies as Cypia in my estimation. The edges of the base are accented with gold paint rather than black which would have been much too dark next to the lighter grass/foliage. Perhaps by the time this was produced the studio had begun to shift away from the Cypia look? It’s also possible that flash photography or strong lighting has washed out much of the brown shading and made the piece look paler than it actually is.

This grouping shows several gradations of the Cypia tonation, from relatively light (Shirley) to medium (Oremus Hands) to dark (Woodland Bear Scene.)

Although not technically a “Cybis” item, this is possibly one of the first examples of Cypia being used!
Cordey dealer display sign
This is the normal/typical version of the same Cordey sign.

Update, July 2022: A dual-marked (Cordey + M. B. Cybis) lady bust in Cypia has turned up, confirming the fact that this particular colorway was sometimes used in both product lines! The studio’s mystifying refusal to even acknowledge the existence of the Cordey China Company explains why their catalog claimed that it was an exclusively Cybis color treatment.
Here we have the Cordey name and design/mold number as impressions, along with the M. B. Cybis painted signature.

Just in case there was ever any doubt that this bust is indeed Cypia-toned, here she is between two definitely-Cypia, Cybis-signed Jesus and Mary busts.
And here, between a Woodland Bear Scene and a Fox Terrier, both in Cypia.

Possibly Cypia

I’ve seen two pieces thus far that might be Cypia but don’t make the case as strongly as the foregoing examples.

CAMEL in color from original 1950s NATIVITY set by CybisHere is a color version of the Camel from the first Nativity set, which Cybis in Retrospect cited as having been produced in Cypia. To my eyes this does not look like a glazed piece, which lends weight to my “missing comma” interpretation of the book’s description: these pieces being made variously in white bisque, in Cypia (in bisque?), and in a more colorful fully glazed version. However, we expect a camel to be brown and so is this really Cypia? The grassy area is mainly green, and both blue and pale pink appear on the camel’s trappings. So I think the jury is out on this one, at least until I discover photos of more colorways.

Cybis madonna and child HOUSE OF GOLD rare gold skin exampleI’m in a real quandary about this particular House of Gold which combines what may be a version of Cypia with what may be another 1950s decoration (“old coin gold”) on the skin areas. If I had no awareness of “Cypia” and was asked what color the Madonna’s robe and the baby’s hair are, based on the above photo, I’d say “pink” with no hesitation.However, when placed between the Jesus and Mary busts that are clearly Cypia, this does seem to blend better. It still reads pink-ish, at least on my monitor, but not quite as much as in the first photo.

As shown more fully in Early Madonnas, there were multiple colorways of House of Gold. Retrospect does list three finishes, as “bisque decorated and white, stained glass decoration” with no mention of Cypia but we can’t take either that book or the 1979 Cybis catalog as gospel; I’ve found too many errors and omissions in them. I do lean toward this particular sculpture to be an example of the ‘stained glass decoration’ rather than Cypia. The combination of the pink tints, very rich dark colored ‘cushion’, and gold skin all push me in that direction. If the intention of the Cypia tonation was subtlety, it’s definitely not displayed in this piece!

It would be interesting to find photos of any Nativity pieces still marked, as the one Saint Francis is, as being Cypia. They would form a basis of comparison not only to the Camel but to other colorways in that series and, by extension, some of the non-religious items from the 1950s as well. When looking at the 1950s animals and birds it is less clear whether a particular piece was really intended as Cypia or as merely a representation of the natural brown tones of fur or feathers.

“Cypia” in any form (glazed or bisque) seems to have been dropped by 1960 and possibly a year or two before. In that way it’s a reliable indicator of a 1950s-era Cybis.

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