Hummel, Berta (1909–1946)

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Hummel, Berta (1909–1946)

German illustrator and Roman Catholic nun whose drawings of children became the models for Hummel figurines. Name variations: Sister Maria Innocentia. Born in Massing, Lower Bavaria, Germany, on May 21, 1909; died on November 6, 1946, in Convent Siessen bei Saulgau, Württemberg, Germany; daughterof Adolf Hummel and Viktoria (Anglsperger) Hummel.

Completed art studies (1931); entered a convent, where she drew pictures of children that were sold to the public, first as greeting cards, then as figurines produced by the W. Goebel porcelain factory, the sales of which provided major financial support for her convent; captured in porcelain, Hummel's images of childhood innocence continue to be much beloved throughout the world and many of the figurines have become rare and expensive collectors' items.

Millions of collectors throughout the world cherish the charming Hummel figurines, while others dismiss them as dust-catching kitsch. In some instances, the statues fetch thousands of dollars at auction. The artist responsible for the original images was a shy, reserved South German named Berta Hummel. She was born in 1909 into a large family in the small Bavarian village of Massing, located 20 miles north of Oberammergau, a location known for its breathtaking scenery, guarded by the Alps and skirting the Rott River. Hummel grew up in a secure, supportive atmosphere. Her father Adolf Hummel was a prosperous businessman who ran the family dry goods store, but in his younger years he had dreamed of becoming an artist. The third of six children, Hummel showed an interest in drawing in her earliest years. Her mother Viktoria Hummel recalled that even as a young girl Berta used vast amounts of waste paper from the family store for her drawings, and also spent much time designing and sewing costumes for her dolls, which she then presented in shows to entertain her two sisters.

Berta suffered emotionally in her youth, at least in part because of her father's absence during World War I. She began to settle down, however, by age 12, when she was enrolled in a finishing school at Simbach where her artistic talents were encouraged. It became obvious to her family by her fourth year at Simbach that Berta's interests would always be dominated by her need to create art. Her mother recalled that she "would bring her work home when she came for a weekend or a holiday. She was painting still lifes, nature scenes, and of course continuing her little sketches on postcards. My husband began noticing refinement in her style, a self-confidence that let him know Berta really wanted to fulfill his ambition by becoming the family artist."

After graduating from Simbach in 1926, Hummel continued her education at Munich's Academy of Applied Arts. Here, she refined her skills. One of her art teachers recalled that she worked harder than most students, showing "great joy and enthusiasm for all things beautiful." At the academy, Berta struck up a friendship with two Franciscan nuns from the Convent of Siessen. By the time she graduated in 1931, Hummel had decided to enter the convent. At Siessen during her period as a novitiate nun, her talent was both recognized and encouraged. Despite signs of fragile health, she worked with her characteristic intensity, inspired not only by the daily framework of prayer and shared responsibilities that marked convent life, but also moved by the meadows of rural Württemberg that she could see each day from her window in the ancient cloister.

By 1934, a Stuttgart publishing firm had released the Hummel-Buch, a small volume of verse illustrated with Hummel's sketches of children, depicting their innocence with simplicity and charm. The book had barely been published when Hummel found herself in a situation that would transform her life and that of her drawings. The proprietor of the Goebel porcelain factory in Oeslau, Thuringia, contacted her, asking permission to reproduce her sketches as porcelain figurines. The situation at the factory was dire; it faced closure and subsequent unemployment for its skilled workers. Hummel agreed to let her art serve as inspiration. Insisting on the highest standards, she asked that artisans from the Goebel factory come to Siessen to consult with her on all production details. When they first appeared on the market in 1935, the Hummel figurines were a hit with a German public that was now under the Nazi dictatorship. The small figurines, sentimental and naive, evoked a peaceful world of innocence and contentment that had vanished.

In 1935, Hummel returned to Munich to continue her art studies, but within a year her health deteriorated, and she was compelled to return to the convent. At Siessen, she divided her time between religious obligations and the creation of a large number of sketches of children as well as ecclesiastical subjects that became holy pictures and tapestries. When her health permitted travel, she would visit the Goebel factory at Oeslau to oversee production of the now world-famous Hummel figures. At that time, a small figurine took 4-to-6 hours to paint and a large one, 8-to-12 hours; in all, 80-to-100 hours of labor were required to manufacture one of the more elaborate Hummels.

In 1937, Hummel took her final vows, leaving behind her former name to become Sister Maria Innocentia of the Third Order of Saint Francis. Even though the substantial income derived from the sales of postcards and figurines based on her art played a major role in keeping the Siessen convent financially solvent, the fame of her drawings had not changed her, and she sought anonymity. Once while traveling on a train, a woman seated opposite Hummel was deeply absorbed in the Hummel-Buch. Noticing Berta's habit, she asked if she were possibly from the same community as Sister Maria Innocentia. "Yes, I am from the same community," replied Sister Maria Innocentia.

At the end of 1940, local Nazi officials invaded the Siessen Motherhouse, having already confiscated other schools in which the 800 nuns of the community taught and worked. Within ten days, the buildings had to be vacated to make room for ethnic German refugees from Rumania. Siessen's superior, Mother Augustina , had to dismiss her nuns, including Hummel who returned to Massing to live with her family. Only 40 nuns remained at Siessen during the war years, confined to one wing of the building. By the autumn of 1944, Hummel's years of respiratory problems had turned into a serious attack of pleurisy complicated by a lung infection. This serious setback to her already fragile health confined her to five months in a sanitorium in Isny, Württemberg.

The defeat of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945 brought French occupation troops to Siessen; they restored the property of the Franciscan nuns to their order. By this time, however, the privations of the war years had permanently weakened Hummel's health. It was now obvious that she was suffering from tuberculosis, and she was taken to a sanitorium in Wangen. When her health did not improve, she was returned to Siessen in September 1946 to end her life within the religious community. Although rapidly weakening and in pain, she lay on a chaise longue, racing to complete her last sketches which she named her "Last Gift" to her fellow nuns and the world. These 15 sketches are as freshly innocent as all of the others she produced in previous years. Noting that Hummel was failing rapidly, the nuns sent for her mother. As the Angelus was ringing at high noon on November 6, 1946, Sister Maria Innocentia's spirit departed from her exhausted body.

Berta Hummel's work endures throughout the world. The Goebel porcelain factory continued to produce figurines (and later, plates) based on her sketches in the difficult postwar years in Germany. In 1977, the Goebel Collectors Club was formed to bring together the thousands of enthusiastic collectors of Hummel figurines and plates; the name of the club was changed in 1989 to the M.I. Hummel Club, and by 1994 it could boast of more than 250,000 registered collectors in the United States alone. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are at least four million serious Hummel collectors.

As collectibles, some of the rarer Hummel figurines are remarkably valuable. A 1948 "Merry Christmas" Hummel plate, a prototype, was estimated at $20,000 in 1989, while a "Silent Night" figurine with a black child could fetch $9,000 to $20,000 at auction, depending on the issue number. In the 1980s, some collectors were willing to pay $5,000 for "Stormy Weather," which shows two children huddled under an umbrella, if the little boy was lacking a tie. And the little boy in "Auf Wiedersehen" is much more valuable ($2,000 instead of only $200) if he is depicted waving his hand. After World War II, the earlier version was interpreted by some as showing a Hitler salute. The Goebel factory produced a new version in which the child waves a handkerchief. Hummel figurines with crown marks on the bottom, which were produced only from 1935 through 1949, are much more valuable than the later versions.

In October 1993, the world's only Hummel Museum opened its doors not in Germany, as might be expected, but in New Braunfels, Texas. The guiding spirit in the creation of this museum was German-born Sieglinde Schoen Smith , who posed for Hummel as an 18-month-old child in 1942 and is known in collector circles as "the living Hummel." Settling in the United States after World War II, Smith felt that Hummel's legacy deserved a museum setting. She contacted Swiss businessman Jacques Nauer, whose family owns the original Hummel sketches. After considering such sites as New York City and the Epcot Center in Florida, Nauer decided that a former savings and loan building in New Braun-fels, a town originally settled by German immigrants, would be the most appropriate location. There are many Hummel originals on display at the museum, along with artifacts from Hummel's Siessen studio and classroom, including her work light, tables, and easel, as well as her German-language edition of Tom Sawyer.

Asked why she believed Berta Hummel's drawings and figurines continue to be beloved by millions, Smith responded that she believed Sister Maria Innocentia "worked at a time when there wasn't much love in the world. For a long

time I couldn't figure out what it is that makes her art so popular. Then I realized that what she drew is everybody's memories."


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John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia