The modern-day (1960 forward) Cybis Studio produced several hundred human studies – bust, torso, or full figure – for retail sale. Approximately 25% of those figures were intended to represent specific personages from either literature or history: e.g., Scarlett from Gone With the Wind, Aphrodite from Greek mythology, Abigail Adams, Cleopatra, Hamlet from Shakespeare, and so on. Only two known Cybis sculptures were modeled after a currently-living person (Katharine Hepburn as Eleanor of Aquitaine, and Pope John Paul II); with the exception of the two George Washington studies, the others were all interpretations of those persons or characters by the Cybis artist(s.)
Artistic interpretation exists in a fairly wide latitude, especially when it comes to how characters from literature are portrayed. In most such cases the studio relied on traditional sources: For example, Alice in Wonderland having long blonde hair and wearing a blue dress with a white apron, based on the classic John Tenniel illustrations and the text of Lewis Carroll’s books. But the ethnic-interpretation field still remained quite large, especially for the “generic” (not based on any specific known person or character) human studies. What choices did the Cybis Studio make in that regard?
A review of all currently-known designs shows that 41 of them represent people of color. The operative word here is “represent” because in some cases the Cybis piece doesn’t conform to some – or most – of the descriptions traditionally applied to that person or character. But let’s take a look at how the studio incorporated diversity into their designs.
I have sorted this overview in order from the fewest examples to the most, per region or ethnic group traditionally assigned to that personage, and then chronologically by retail introduction year. Detailed information about each sculpture can be found in the linked Archive post shown in brackets.
Africa/African American (4)
This category includes three children and one adult. The child heads are described in detail in the Child Portrait Busts post.
Jason is one of a series of non-limited named child-bust designs that was begun in the mid-1970s. He is 9.5” high including the wood base and was introduced in 1978. There is some slight variation in the skin color among these but for the most part they are consistent (something that cannot be said for the Eros bust whose skin tone can vary from pure white to ‘almost sunburned’!)
Jessica appeared in 1979 as the companion bust to Jason. She is very slightly shorter at 9.25” high overall.
Othello was a limited edition of 350 in 1983 and stands 15” tall. Shakespeare describes him as being a Moor, which in the context of the time basically meant anyone who wasn’t Caucasian. It’s noteworthy that nowhere in the play does any character say where Othello is from, and it’s not as if we can wake The Bard up and ask him what he intended. So, it’s a toss-up as to whether Othello was meant to have been from Africa, Spain, or somewhere in the Middle East. Actor portrayals are no help because the role has been memorably played by many, ranging from Paul Robeson and James Earl Jones to Orson Welles and Patrick Stewart. Cybis’ version harks back to one of the late 1660s London stage productions in which David Garrick costumed his Othello in an elaborate plumed turban; most later productions eschewed such headgear for this character. [Shakespeare by Cybis]
The open edition Football Player from 1984 was one of several sports-theme generic child pieces during the 1980s. Some of these were named and some not. As can be seen in these photos, this piece can exhibit quite a bit of variation in skin paint color. This piece is 8.5” tall. [Sports Studies]
I’m compelled to editorialize a bit here and say that in my opinion, the Cybis studio could have done more within this genre than they did, especially during the late 1980s when they introduced their new Wedding and Baby items. Their first wedding piece was a limited edition, 12” high Bride figure which was offered in a choice of blonde or brunette hair at first, and then that was expanded to include a red-hair option in the mid-1990s. There is no reason, design-wise, that they could not also have offered an African-American colorway as well. Likewise, when they introduced the Lullaby Baby on Moon in 1986 (a blonde baby with either a pink, blue, or ivory blanket) and the Baby in Cradle in 1990 (with those same color options) the paint options of either or both could easily have been expanded. If nothing else, these three pieces were a missed marketing opportunity…. especially since as of 1990 the studio was advertising that “all pieces are made to order.”
Boleslaw Cybis himself created a series of portrait paintings in oils and mixed media during his sojourn in Libya in the early 1930s. Several of these are shown in the Paintings post. An upcoming post will feature some of his original drawings from the same era.
Kwan Yin, designed by Harry Burger and identified as the Chinese goddess of compassion, is 13.5” high and was an edition of 350 from 1972. Burger had a very distinctive sculpting style which is reflected in this piece as well as the madonna and ballet pieces he created for Cybis. [Mythology]
As part of the studio’s child-bust series, this was officially titled Oriental Boy ‘Cheerful Dragon’ (Shi Lun) in their catalog and price lists. His introduction-year catalog (1979) description says that his “calm brow reflects his ancient lineage of wisdom and thoughtfulness. Our Cheerful Dragon values not only wisdom, but courage as well.” This was an open edition that is 10” high overall. [Child Portrait Busts]
The same catalog previewed the companion bust, Oriental Girl ‘Lotus Blossom’ (Lien Hua) even though she was not available until the following spring (1980) and says that “lovely Lotus Blossom is named for the flower which to the Chinese represents purity and everlasting life.” Lotus Blossom is 9.25” high overall. [Child Portrait Busts]
Madame Butterfly, from the Puccini opera and a limited edition of 500 in 1984, is 13.5” high. She is featured on the cover of their 1986 catalog which was the final one the studio published. [Music and Opera]
The next three designs were part of the studio’s Classical Impressions series, were offered in both white bisque and color, and depict the martial arts. Additional photos can be seen in the Classical Impressions post.
The first in the series was titled Tang Dynasty I (The Student) and appeared in 1986. He is 9.5” high and was produced in an edition of 500 in white bisque plus an edition of 200 in color. The Tang Dynasty was the period in which the Shaolin temple became renowned for its martial arts training.
Tang Dynasty II does not appear to have been given an additional name. He is from 1987 and was an edition of 500 in white and 250 in color. Dimensions are 13.5” high and 10” wide because of his stance.
Tang Dynasty III appeared sometime between 1990 and 1992 (I am missing price lists from those years) and was likely the same or smaller size issues as the previous two. The above photo is the only example I have ever seen of a color version of any of these.
This one-of-a-kind Asian version of the figure skater A Star is Born was never released at retail but is shown here for completeness.
Middle East/North Africa (7)
It’s within this category that some arguable discrepancies exist between traditional perception and Cybis artistic interpretations.
The earliest design in this category is Nefertiti, whose appearance is taken from the famous 18th Dynasty portrait bust. The official Cybis marketing photo shows her with a skin color typical of almost all of their Portraits in Porcelain, i.e., extremely light but with a flush or blush on the cheeks. The example in the left-hand photo most closely approximates this. However, the vast majority of pieces produced for retail have a darker skin color with a distinct bronze cast – sometimes almost approaching a light orange.
These face detail photos show a piece that is midway between those two extremes. Although early historians theorized that Nefertiti was from Mitanni (present-day Syria), more current thinking is that she was probably Egyptian by birth. The Cybis Nefertiti was introduced in 1979 as a limited edition of 500; she is 12” high. [Historical Personages]
There are three characters in Cybis’ second nativity set (subtitled The First Christmas) whose historical origins can be debated. All were introduced in 1983. Known in popular culture as either the “three kings,” “three wise men,” or “the Magi”, the studio sidestepped that decision by never giving them a title: They were advertised only by their names, but because all three wear crowns it’s clear that they were intended to represent kings.
Some sources cite Melchior as being from Persia while others claim it was Arabia. The Cybis version is definitely light-skinned and has blue eyes (frankly, he would have made a great Santa Claus!) which seems to contradict the traditional “roots” of Melchior; however, a bit of research will show that people from certain parts of the Middle East can indeed have light skin and/or eyes. Like his two companions, Melchior was an open edition. He is only 7” high because of his kneeling position.
Balthasar has several possible origin lands from which to choose: Depending on the source material, he may have been from Egypt, Arabia, or Turkey (Tarsus.) The Cybis version has light skin and blue eyes like Melchior and the same comments apply to him as well. Nevertheless, it is surprising that the studio chose to give two of their three kings a decidedly European appearance while only one (Caspar) looks as if he is a person of color. Balthasar is 9.5” high.
According to most Google results, Caspar (sometimes also called Gaspar or Jaspar in literature) was “a scholar from India” while a few sources claim that he was the ‘King of Sheba.’ Amidst some discussion, the kingdom of Sheba is generally believed to have been in the southern part of Arabia. The presence of a crown on Cybis’ figure indicates that he was the king of something – whether of Sheba or elsewhere. Caspar is 9.5” tall.
This is the Queen of Sheba, an edition of 500 in 1987. She is 14.25” tall. Two competing ‘identities’ for the Biblical Queen of Sheba exist: One that she was an Ethiopian queen named Makeba, and the other that she was a Yemeni queen named Bilquis. The appearance of the Cybis interpretation suggests the latter, but that was almost certainly due to circumstance. By the mid-1980s the studio was no longer engaging in the level of research for these pieces that had been done during Marylin Chorlton’s tenure as director. The likely directive that the artist received for this piece was probably to “create a beautiful woman wearing an elaborate Middle Eastern costume indicating royalty” without paying much attention to ethnic-origin accuracy. [Old Testament]
Scheherazade probably comes the closest to how most people would envision this character from what’s popularly called “The Arabian Nights” wherein she acts as the narrator or storyteller of the various tales (including Aladdin, Sinbad, and others) which hold the Sultan’s interest for 1001 consecutive nights, thereby sparing her life until he comes to his senses and marries her. Although Cybis has her in almost a dancing pose – which creates an unfortunate association with a belly dancer, something that she never was in the story – one can also see it as her illustrating her story with expressive gestures and movements. Either way, she was an edition of 500 from 1989 and stands 13” high. [Literature]
The Nefertiti Bust was issued in 1990 as a large limited edition of 1000. This is a small piece (for a bust), being only 8” high. This second Cybis version of the queen makes no attempt to portray her with anything other than white skin; indeed, her face color is the same as the similar Cleopatra Bust that the studio had released the previous year. However, the Cleopatra skin color was justifiable because, as a Ptolemaic queen, she was mostly Greek (Macedonian and Thessalian) by descent rather than Egyptian. [Historical Personages]
Some readers may be wondering why I did not include several other Old Testament characters portrayed by Cybis (David, Bathsheba, and Solomon) in this section, and I did think long and hard about this. I realize that there is much, and often quite heated, debate about whether the Israeli people should or should not be considered people of color, and the last thing I want to do is to venture onto that particular political battlefield. Under the circumstances I’ve opted to show those three sculptures below, and let each person form their own opinion of what the Cybis studio might have intended to portray.
From left to right: Bathsheba (1984, edition of 500, 14.25” h.); King David (1985, final edition 350, 14” h.); King Solomon (1987, edition of 500, 15” h.) Larger photos and additional information on all three can be found in the Old Testament post, which also includes the Moses bust and plaque, Queen Esther, and Noah.
Native American (23 figures)
By far the largest percentage of people-of-color portrayed by the Cybis studio was that of the Native Americans, which the studio always described as the “North American Indians.” The Archive post devoted to this series goes into much greater detail than is shown below. Of the 23 figures known to be created by the studio, 13 depicted a member of a specific tribe; this was reflected in the sculpture’s official name. The heights indicated here include the wood base (if any) that the sculpture came with.
‘Beaverhead’ Medicine Man (Blackfoot) from 1969; an edition of 350, 11.5” high.
‘Laughing Water’ Minnehaha (Dakota), also from 1969, an edition of 350; 11” high.
Hiawatha (Onandaga) was the third 1969 issue. An edition of 350 that is 11.5” high.
Sacajawea (Shoshone) from 1971. This too was an edition of 350 at 11” high.
Magic Boy (Cree) also from 1971, was made in two colorways: color and plain white bisque. The white version was an edition of 100, and color of 200. Height is 15”.
The first open (nonlimited) edition of a Native American was the Eskimo Child ‘Snow Bunting’ head in 1972. It is 10.5” overall.
Eskimo Mother from 1973 began as an edition of 350 that was later reduced to to 200; 11” high.
At the Council Fire (Iroquois) from 1973, an edition of 225, 14” high.
Chato (Apache) from 1974, an edition of 350 which is 13.25” high.
Nanuq, Little Polar Bear was an adaptation of the Snow Bunting head for a Cybis retailer event during the mid-1970s. Two hundred of these were made.
Another adaptation of Snow Bunting is this Eskimo Girl Head which may have been made either as a test piece or as a promo piece at another retailer event. Unfortunately, there is no photo of the markings which might shed some light on this question.
Two separate open-edition Native American child busts were introduced in 1975: Indian Girl Head ‘Running Deer’ (10″ high) and Indian Boy Head ‘Little Eagle’ (12.5″ high.) Unlike all of the other Cybis child busts, these did not come on a wood base.
Crow Dancer ‘Great Thunder’ (Crow) from 1977, an edition of 350, 19” high.
‘Wankan Tanka’ Great Spirit (Sioux) issued in 1979 as an edition of 200. This is the first design that reflected smaller edition sizes than the prior ‘tribe’ studies. He is 18.25” high.
Kateri Tekakwitha (Mohawk) was a small edition of 100 in 1981. She is 13.25” high.
Tascalusa (Choctaw) followed in 1982, as an edition 200, 16” high.
Eagle Dancer (Pueblo) from 1984, edition of 200, 20.75” high. This is the tallest of the series.
Deer Dancer (Yaqui) from 1985, edition of 200, 19.5” high.
The Wolf Hunter was designed in the mid-1980s but never released. The top photo shows the full sculpture as originally designed. The smaller one, showing the hunter only, was a test piece.
Young Brave from 1987, edition of 750, 13.5” high. The studio had moved away from the very detailed sculptures of earlier years by this time.
Fire Dancer appeared in 1996 or 1997 as an edition of 200. It is 14” high.
This final Native American piece appeared as Proud Warrior in some Cybis advertising and as Indian Warrior in others. It was issued in 1999 as an edition of 200, standing 17” high.
The only other known porcelain depiction of a Native American was this small 2” diameter medallion based on Boleslaw Cybis’ drawing of a Comanche Chief titled Indomitable Spirit. It was first used in 1970 an an insert in the packaging of the Folio One lithographs of the original 1930s drawings. It was used again in 1995 as a membership-gift piece for the short-lived Cybis Collectors Society. In that iteration (second photo) the 1970 was removed from the mold’s face and it was produced in white with gold paint accents.
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The Cybis Archive is a continually-updated website that provides the most comprehensive range of information about Cybis within a single source. It is not and never has been part of the Cybis Porcelain studio, which is no longer in business.