Most Cybis collectors are familiar with the piece colloquially known as The Polish Bride, which was based on a 1937 oil painting by Boleslaw Cybis, but until recently I was unaware that the studio produced a second sculpture based on a different – but strikingly similar – painting. Unlike The Bride, whose origins and production history are well documented, the circumstances surrounding the second sculpture have been more difficult to ferret out.
The Original Painting
The inspiration for the porcelain piece was this oil on canvas, painted in the mid to late 1920s by Boleslaw Cybis. At one time it appears to have been in the collection of Mr. Andrey Avinoff who was the Director of the Carnegie Museum in the 1930s and 1940s; at least, that is what the catalog for the 1970-71 exhibit Cybis in Retrospect at the NJ State Museum claimed. However, Mr. Avinoff died in 1949 and thus the exact location of the painting during the 1970s is not known. The original was not loaned for the exhibit and so a photograph had to suffice.
The exhibit catalog titled this painting as ‘Nativity at Lowicz’ which seems odd in view of the fact that “nativity” is generally interpreted as being connected with the Christmas holiday. I believe that name might have been a misunderstanding of the original title of the painting which was, of course, in Polish.
The Polish word for birth is narodziny. Therefore, if the painting was titled (either on the reverse or in Mr. Avinoff’s collection records) as Narodziny w Lowicz, it would be an easy mistake for someone unfamiliar with the language to translate that as “Nativity at Lowicz” simply by the visual similarity of the words and the general subject. In my opinion, a more accurate English title for the painting would have been Birth at Lowicz. It was probably meant as a chronological follow-up to The Bride which was painted at approximately the same time.
Update, October 2020: A spate of research into Polish bridal customs revealed that in traditional culture, unmarried girls wore crowns or circlets of flowers. Often made of a combination of flowers, leaves, and herbs, these were called a “maiden’s wreath.” Her wedding day was the last time a girl or woman would ever wear one. The fact that it is included in this painting and sculpture therefore indicates that the mother is a maiden (virgin) and thus seems to suggest that she is the Virgin Mary — for which a title of “Nativity” would be appropriate. However, I have to say that I’m hugely surprised that a devout Catholic like Boleslaw Cybis would have painted the Virgin Mary as topless!
The other question is, why “at Lowicz” if the painting is indeed a representation of the Christian nativity? Are the three women attendants supposed to be angels? There is a helmeted man in the background at left, and a person of indeterminate sex also. Brushing aside any notion that Boleslaw was suggesting that Jesus was actually born in Poland instead of in the Middle East, perhaps the title means that he painted it while at Lowicz (a town in central Poland)? If we take the picture literally, it is showing an unmarried (or virgin/maiden) woman with her baby. I will leave it up to the observer to decide whether the original painting was meant to represent a version of the traditional Christian nativity scene or not!
The Cybis Sculpture
The one thing we know for sure about the porcelain versions is that The (Polish) Bride definitely came first: As explained in detail in her own Archive post, she was introduced at retail in Spring 1980 as an edition of 100 which was either completed or closed in 1982. She appears on Cybis retail price lists during that time. This second sculpture – which I will refer to as Lowicz Mother and Baby – does not appear on any price list or catalog that I currently have; but unfortunately I have nothing from 1983, 1984 or 1985. Thus, it is possible that this piece dates from that period or from the mid to late 1990s (another regrettable gap in my Cybis-literature reference material.)
I know of three completed examples that definitely exist. The two shown below both came out of the Cybis studio’s holdings during their final liquidations; both are signed but neither are numbered. They have some slight differences and so I am showing multiple views of both. It is 15.5” tall.
Obviously the Cybis sculpture was, like The Bride, adapted from the painting’s ‘group’ scene to a study of only the mother and child. The direction of the mother’s gaze has been changed from a point in the distance to downward at her child. The baby likewise is no longer looking at the viewer but up to his mother’s face instead.
The dipped lace along the edges of the blanket is reminiscent of the workmanship seen on the 1940s Cordey figures and busts. The back-view photo shows an area of dark orange discoloration of the glue that originally attached the lace to the edge of the blanket. There appear to be several other areas of lace where such oxidation has occurred, albeit to a lesser extent.
The ‘spikes’ in the headdress are meant to depict the stalks of wheat shown in the painting; this is one instance where art would have been far better served by utilizing a cast-and-painted-metal element instead, if there was nobody in the studio with the skill to fashion them by hand in porcelain. Almost all of the flowers were cast from a mold; the wheat stalks certainly are, and as a result are so solid that they could easily be mistaken for an attempt at feathers. The painting shows at least nine stalks; the Cybis piece has six, and the tip of one is broken off. There are some other condition ‘issues’ on this piece as well.
This is the headdress on The Bride, for comparison. There are molded elements here too, especially the berries, but there are quite a few handmade flowers and the overall quality of workmanship is much higher. The yellow-centered white flowers are created from pieces of dipped lace. The painting is better here also.
This first example is signed Cybis U.S.A. on the bottom corner of the mother’s skirt.
The second example of the Lowicz Mother and Baby has some subtle differences.
The most noticeable difference is in her headdress, which is definitely wider. There are five wheat stalks, four of which are vertical and the fifth almost so. The almost-perfectly-vertical orientation is at odds with the way they are shown in the painting and make them look even more like spikes.
The mother’s neck is not bent downward as far as it is in the first example. This difference can be seen in both the side and rear-view photos.
The floral headdress on this example is constructed differently, as if on a plate or platform, which accounts for its wider appearance. There are a few handmade roses here that are lacking on the first example. That one also has a small detail painting on the right side of her hair that was omitted from this sculpture (which in my opinion is an improvement.) The wheat stalks have been cast from a different mold and do not look like feathers here.
The signature on this piece is found in a different place: The underside of the seat.
Many thanks to the eBay seller who brought this design to my attention and supplied the photos above. The second example was subsequently donated to the Museum of American Porcelain Art in Ohio. Several unfinished (plain white bisque-fired) and non-assembled pieces also existed among the studios holdings at the time of their final liquidation.
A bit of trivia is that this is only the fourth known Cybis retail piece that ever depicted a female with her upper body uncovered. The other three are Lady Godiva, Leda and the Swan, and Dream of Venus. There were also two others (a Nude with Plinth and a Goddess with Twin Children) that were never released but can be seen in the Classical Impressions post.
Unfortunately, I do not have photos of the third known completed example and only happened to remember its existence by chance. Several years ago, during a brief email correspondence, a collector made a passing reference to having “one of the pieces that was based on the other painting [than The Bride]”. It was one of those things that caught my eye but I somehow failed to follow up on immediately and subsequently forgot. After hearing of the two pieces shown above, however, I located the email and reached out to the writer, explaining that I am trying to find information about whether this was an actual retail issue and when it took place. As Murphy’s Law often dictates, the person in question is on a sabbatical and is not receiving email at this time. I do hope to eventually reconnect with them and obtain more information which will, of course, be added here.
That said, if anyone else happens to have one of these sculptures and can furnish any information as to when it was made, acquired, advertised, or what its official Cybis name and edition size was, I would be very grateful! There is a contact-form link below.
Likewise, if anyone happens to know where the original Nativity at Lowicz painting happens to reside nowadays, it would be very interesting to know that as well. Perhaps there may even be a color photo! 😊
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