If you take a close look at your Hummel figurine, you will notice the signature “M.I. Hummel” on the bottom of the piece. True Hummel aficionados know, of course, that this is the signature of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, the artist behind the cute and chubby-cheeked children’s figurines.
Sister Maria Innocentia did not relish the fame she unexpectedly acquired in the early 1930s. Her intention was to create bible illustrations and deeply religious art after she entered the Franciscan convent in Sießen in the southwest of Germany at the age of 21. She always adored children and loved to portray them. But not even in her wildest dreams would she ever have fathomed that they would become world famous figurines…
History of Hummel Figurines
Berta Hummel, as she was known as a child, was born in a sleepy little town called Massing in Lower Bavaria in 1909. Her family ranged among the affluent, well-bred society of the town with its barely 4000 inhabitants as Berta’s parents owned a well-assorted general store. Berta was born into an environment that was deeply catholic, industrious and solid and along with her 5 siblings, she received a sound school education although she is described as having troubles to sit still during lessons and being “a fidgety character”. Nonetheless, as a naturally curious and inquisitive child, she was an excellent pupil and soon started to display an extraordinary talent for drawing. According to her mother Viktoria Hummel, there was not a single piece of paper in the house that Berta hadn’t drawn something on. Berta’s father, who had harbored dreams of becoming a sculptor in his youth, was thrilled to see his daughter developing into a skilled painter. In a time when few daughters left their parents’ home before they were married, thanks to Adolf Hummel’s open mind, 18-year old Berta moved to Munich to study at the Munich School of Applied Arts to become an art teacher.
We know but little about the Munich years. Berta excelled at school and many of her professors claimed that she was their most gifted student. Her letters to her family in Massing are cheerful, but they don’t betray any hints of a student life, of parties of even suitors. Berta, it seems, lived solely for her art and did not seek any other companion. Or she wisely chose not to tell her good and staunchly catholic parents… But we do know that she met and became friends with 2 young nuns from the Franciscan convent in Sießen. At the age of 21, the cheerful, lively and creative tomboy Berta shocked her environment by announcing that she had decided to take the veil. Her reasons for this life decision were never revealed, but in 1931 the Franciscan convent in Sießen admitted Berta Hummel as a noviceand she became sister Maria Innocentia.
Maria Innocentia always adored children and loved to portray them. Several elderly inhabitants of Sießen and the surrounding villages can still remember acting as a model to her, trying to sit still while the young nun painted them. These sweet and slightly naïve paintings struck the right note in a time when the public and political climate in Germany became increasingly cold and uncomfortable. Soon, the catholic publishing house Ars Sacra in Munich produced pictures, post cards and calendars featuring Maria Innocentia’s picturesque children’s scenes. She became more and more famous, something she never had aspired to and as she was a modest person, she found her popularity rather awkward. But times were hard, and the calendars and postcards provided a stable source of income, not for the artist, of course, but for the convent.
Although the Berta Hummel depicted happy, chubby-cheeked and blonde German children, the Nazis considered her work as “Entartete Kunst” (degenerate art). Nazi art critics slated Berta’s small, cute children’s portraits as “hydrocephalic and clubfooted dirty brats” because her work did not show enough heroic Arian ideology. Among the people, however, the Berta Hummel’s portraits quickly became increasingly popular.
In 1934, the porcelain manufacturer Franz Goebel from the small town Rödental in Upper Franconia had the idea that the paintings of the young artist from the convent should serve as the designs for lovely little porcelain figurines. Maria Innocentia was furious at first – she always had wanted to be remembered for her religious art, not for colorful little porcelain children! However, her Mother Superior soon convinced her that it would be of great benefit for the convent and Maria Innocentia gave her consent.
This was the birth of the Hummel figurines as we know them. They were first presented at the spring fair in Leipzig in 1935 and were an incredible success as thousands of them were exported to the United States alone. The revenue for both the Goebel factory and the Franciscan convent were enormous.
That revenue would soon become of paramount importance for the nuns of Sießen. By 1940, the Nazis had expropriated the convent buildings as well as the farmlands and had turned most of the convent into a camp for displaced ethnic Germans from the Balkans. The nuns were shoved aside and most of them lived in cramped conditions in a part of the south wing of the convent. The Hummel figurines were now the only source of income for the 240 sisters. Maria Innocentia, despite hunger, terrible hygienic conditions and close quarters, kept painting idyllic children scenes to provide new designs for the growing production of the porcelain figurines as her quaint chubby-cheeked smiling children were high in demand even in times of war or maybe because they helped people to imagine better world…
In 1944, Maria Innocentia became sick. Pleurisy seriously weakened her lungs and although life became much easier after the liberation of the convent by French troops, she did not have the strength anymore to recover. Tuberculosis affected both her lungs. After long weeks of suffering, Maria Innocentia passed away in November 1946, being only 37 years old.
Her legacy, however, lives on. Over 20 million Hummels have been produced over the last 80 years in Rödental, every single one of them still handmade. Hummel clubs have been founded all over the world and collectors go to great lengths to find the most precious pieces. After WW II, Hummels even featured on the black markets all over Germany as G.I.s loved to take them home as souvenirs, and would pay for them with cigarettes!
Berta’s nephew Alfred Hummel turned the Hummel family house in Massing into a small and fine museum in 1994, dedicated to Berta Hummel and her art. The convent in Sießen still owns religious paintings of their most famous sister and have named a room in the convent for her.
The Goebel factory that has delighted the world with the cute Hummel figurines got into financial trouble and had to file for bankruptcy several times since the year 2000. There were times when the production of Hummels seemed to come to an end. In fall 2017, the company announced once more that they would have to close by the end of the year. Only in January 2018, the good news was published on Bavarian TV that Bernd Förtsch, a publisher from Kulmbach, will take over the factory to modernize it and take the Hummel figurines into the 21st century.
If you look at a Hummel figurine, you might think: “chubby little porcelain children are not my thing”. But then think about the background story: all these figurines were real children from the south of Germany painted by a woman who adored kids but gave up the dream of an own family to become a nun and devote her life to god. These little figurines kept a whole convent from starvation during WW II. They are a unique success story. They have brought joy to millions of people in the world. And hopefully they will never cease to charm and make people smile.