One of the most enjoyable things about creating the Cybis Archive has been hearing from readers who have questions about Cybis or information to share. This is particularly true in regard to the 1940s and 1950s pieces, many of which were either never documented by Cybis or their original information has been lost. An especially fascinating and lovely example has come to light, thanks to a helpful reader, and I immediately knew that she deserved her own Archive post.
The Cybis lady in question is definitely from the 1940s and is a stellar example of the “bridge” between the Cordey items and what most people today recognize as Cybis. But let’s begin with some photos first, and then move on to a more detailed discussion of her very interesting qualities. I must say that in my opinion she has the most beautiful face that I have ever seen on either a Cordey-marked or Cordey/Cybis marked piece.
She is about 13 inches high overall, and her owner describes her as being quite heavy. She is about 8 inches across at the widest point. Now let’s examine her more closely!
Face Sculpt and Painting
To my eyes, this lady’s face resembles the best of the later Golden Age (1960s-70s) Cybis portrait busts such as Juliet rather than the typical Cordey lady-bust designs which were being produced at the same time that this piece was. There is a serenity and elegance about her face that Cordey busts normally don’t achieve.
Even her eyebrows show attention to detail.
The upper photo shows a typical small Cordey lady bust. The other bust is larger and more detailed but still not in the same class as this lady.
Here’s the 1965 Juliet bust for comparison.
The first of several surprises is that she is signed M.B. Cybis and also has what appears to be a design number: 252. While she is not the only Cordey-esque piece to be marked M.B. Cybis either instead of or in addition to Cordey (there is no Cordey mark on this bust), she is the first I have found to have this much of a “Cybis look” to her face.
The 252 immediately presents us with a mystery, because it doesn’t correspond to either the Cordey or Cybis assignments! Cordey human figures and busts were given mold numbers in the 3000, 4000 and 5000 range; their “lady face wall plaques” were all in the 900s. The 200s were assigned to tableware such as teacups, teapots, and the like. On the other hand, Cybis-branded designs that began with 2 were always religious items – which this lady clearly is not. So, 252 doesn’t seem to correspond to anything. However……
The Cybis numbering system as we know it began in the 1950s, because pieces from that era have been found with their design number still on it. The Cordey numbering system probably began in 1942 when the company was launched. But this bust is not marked Cordey. Is this lady an early example of the studio having Cybis-branded retail items in addition to the Cordey line? In other words, she is an example of the very first Cybis design number range, before the studio was incorporated in 1953 and they began buying Holland Mold production stock. But for these earliest Cybis retail pieces, the human figures were apparently given design numbers in the 200s. Thus, in the 1950s Cybis must have re-started the mold/design number sequence from scratch and assigned the 200s to the religious figures exclusively, while human figures and busts became the 400s (and later, 4000s.)
I have only seen a design number on an M.B. Cybis figure once before: a pair of dual-marked Cordey and M.B. Cybis full figures of a dancing couple. Those are both marked and numbered in the same blue, as 200 and 200A. So, this lady confirms that the 1940s Cybis studio was indeed giving design numbers in the 200 range to their figures marked M.B. Cybis. (An upcoming post will feature several Cordey/Cybis “crossover” figures with their various signature formats.)
This lady wears the “dipped lace” accessory that the studio used for a number of their Cordey busts, especially the larger ones. The process was relatively simple: A piece of lace was dipped into a vat of liquid porcelain (“slip”) mixed to a thinner than normal consistency, and then draped around the greenware bust or figure as desired. When the piece was put into the kiln for the bisque firing, the high heat would vaporize the lace and leave only the porcelain coating behind. Voila! Porcelain lace. The same technique was used for pieces of solid fabric as well. Our 1940s lady wears a dipped-lace headscarf with a solid-fabric edge trim.
This photo illustrates what can happen if the ‘slip’ coating on the lace is not completely uniform. In fairness, it was probably very difficult for the caster to get the process exactly right every time and I’m sure some lace pieces worked better for this than others. Anyway, the result can be areas where the porcelain ends up thicker as a result of “drips” and perhaps a bit more prone to cracking where those sections overlap. Such may have been the case here, or maybe someone put just a bit too much pressure on that area when handling it one day. A professional repair could possibly be made, using very thin “slip”, but it would still probably be noticeable because it would be unlikely to match. Sadly, people who do that sort of work are few and far between and becoming rarer all the time.
Turning for a moment to the solid-fabric edge, the same painted blue-curlicues design has been found once before on a 1940s Cybis piece:
This madonna has been seen in two colorways, the other having brown hair and a darker blue paint for the design. Sadly, no signature photo was provided for either, so we don’t know how either of them are signed. I would not be at all surprised if they are “M.B. Cybis”, though!
Our mystery lady has another surprise in store: She is “topless” (in a very civilized way)!
This fascinating (and totally unexpected) view shows that she was cast with an open top. One can clearly see how the solid fabric strip was pleated and tucked inside for the firing process. There is no evidence of breakage or glue along the top, so it seems that she was made that way. Is it possible that she was intended to be a vase? (a mental picture that I am immediately dismissing!)
This discovery brings up another question to ponder: Did this particular head sculpt mold have an open top by default? And if so, what about the head molds used for most of the Cordey busts? Were some “whole head” and others open-top? Or were the molds modified from the standard “whole head” version according to how a given bust was to be decorated?
Similar Pieces and Dating
So, where does this pretty girl fall in the chronology of 1940s Cybis pieces? We have seen three of her “sisters” already, here and there.
This 1945 ad from the B. Altman department store has a sketch of a bust on the identical base, cited as being by “the artist Cybis” ….. note that “Cordey” is not mentioned, despite the fact that Cordey-branded items had already been on retail shelves for two or three years.
Here’s a hatted lady on the same base. Unfortunately, there was only this one small photo and a very short description mentioning an M.B. Cybis signature and the same physical dimensions as our dipped-lace belle; her face sculpt is also the same although IMHO not as nicely painted. Her hairstyle (bangs) appears to match the one in the B. Altman ad sketch. Of course, I’m now dying of curiosity as to whether there was a design number on this one and, if so, what it was.
And lastly, we have another ‘sister’ bust…..as a lamp! The face sculpt and base are the same, and luckily the old description gave a tiny bit more information as well as a signature photo: M.B. Cybis and although not seen in the photo the description mentions a number: 105, which completely blows our 200s-for-1940s-Cybis-people theory out of the water unless the 100s meant “for a lamp.” The fact that she has an open top was mentioned although not shown. Notice the round hole in the base which is absent in the lady being profiled here. I would guess that a candelabra bulb might fit through it? The seller noted the height as being about 16” overall. It must have been quite heavy! This remains the only lamp that I have seen to date that is marked Cybis in any way; lamps were very much the Cordey-operation thing.
It’s really amazing how much information as well as “new questions” this 1940s beauty has given us.
We can roughly date her to the mid-1940s or possibly earlier, but the big question is whether she came before the Cordey operation was launched (1943) or after. In other words: Was the Cordey line inspired by M.B. Cybis pieces such as this? Or were these M.B. Cybis pieces inspired by the Cordey line and thus utilized some of the Cordey molds?
We now know that the “official” Cybis design numbering system was actually the second one, having now discovered three M.B. Cybis pieces with a number on them that does not correspond to the 1950s-and-later system. These numbers clearly are connected to the M.B. Cybis signature because they were applied at the same time with the same paint. A determination of whether the numbers were assigned by genre (people, lamp, bird, whatever) or simply in order of production will need to wait for the discovery of more M.B. Cybis pieces with numbers.
Although at least one lamp marked M.B. Cybis was made (assuming this one was original, a theory supported by the hole in the base which otherwise would not have been necessary) we don’t know if there were others or whether this particular head mold had an open top by default. Two of her three “sisters” have headwear so we don’t know for sure, though I strongly suspect that the hatted lady bust has an open top, given the shape of her hat.
I have collected a fair number of retailer ads for Cordey from 1944-1950 in preparation for a new series of posts about Cordey; none of those ads show this particular bust. This reinforces my hunch that this particular lady was only sold as a “Cybis” piece rather than a Cordey …. despite her unmistakably-Cordey decoration and details. Were these ladies sold only through certain retailers? Or perhaps even only sold at the Trenton studio itself? Inquiring minds would love to know!
In any event, this is a wonderful early Cybis retail sculpture and I’m very grateful to her owner who shared her with the Cybis Archive and the world at large. She certainly deserves the spotlight!
Name Index of Cybis Sculptures
Visual Index (for Cybis human figures/busts only; no Cordey)
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