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Berta Hummel
and Her Famous Figurines

“Land in Sight” (1991) is a three-dimensional representation of a watercolor by Berta Hummel.

“Trio of Wishes” (1997) includes three Hummel staples: tousled hair, flower blossoms and an umbrella.

Hummel means “bumblebee” in German, and that indeed was Berta, buzzing around with a zest for life.

Could this be a sketch of Berta’s baby brother Adolf, sent to cheer an absent father away at the battlefront when his son was born?

The blue-cloaked “Flower Madonna,” also made with a white glaze, is especially prozed by Hummel collectors.

Berta Hummel portrayed the moments of childhood stored in everyone’s memory.

“Blossom Time” (1996) recalls the child Sieglinde.

The joy of childhood is visible in the work of Franciscan Sister Maria Innocentia, better known as Berta Hummel. Her sketches and watercolors captured children’s happiness and simplicity even during the darkest hours of war-torn Germany. By Jay Copp

 Her Father’s Wish

 Faith, Art and Love

 Across the Ocean

 The Inner Child

Hummel Model Memories

Work That Still Cheers

Friday’s Child Sidebar

HUMMELS—JOYFUL, WHIMSICAL FIGURINES of happy children—are international collectors’ items, well-known, well-loved and highly valued. Not everyone is equally aware of the artist behind these images of children and other more overtly religious figurines. All were inspired by the sketchings and pastel drawings of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel, a German Franciscan who lived during the Hitler era. Though her work was banned by the Nazis, she continued to produce her art under difficult conditions.

Sister Maria Innocentia (Berta Hummel) works in her studio. This previously unpublished photo was sent by the artist’s mother to her American biographer, Sister Gonsalva.

Photo courtesy of the Sisters of St. Francis, Oldenburg, Indiana

Sister Hummel died nearly 51 years ago when she was only 37. Her art beautifully reflected her sunny disposition and her love of children. She kept her faith in the power of God even though she lived in the darkest days of her native Germany.

In 1942, a woman now known as the “living Hummel ” became one subject of Sister Hummel’s work. When Sieglinde Schoen of Buchau was 16 months old, her father commissioned Sister Hummel to do a painting of her to give his wife for Christmas. In preparation for a kinderfest (children’s festival), Sieglinde’s mother had costumed her daughter in a dress decorated with bluebells. Sister Hummel pictured Sieglinde in the dress amid a field of bluebells. She called it “Kind Mit Enzian” (Child With Bluebells).

Near Christmas, Sieglinde accompanied her father to the convent to pick up the portrait. The young girl was awestruck by the sisters’ Christmas tree, decorated with real clip-on candles. Sister Hummel, seeing Sieglinde’s fascination, let out a little cry of joy, shouted, “Don’t move!“ and ran for her sketchbook. She called her charcoal drawing “Sieglinde’s First Tree” and presented it to the family as a Christmas gift. Both drawings, which Sieglinde still owns and calls “my babies,” were later made into figurines.

Sieglinde observes today, “The whole world thinks there was nothing but ugliness in Germany during the war. But with the Hummels, the world got a special gift—the German children were brought back.”

Her Father’s Wish Come True

Berta Hummel was born in 1909 in the small, picturesque village of Massing, Bavaria. She was the third daughter in a family of six brothers and sisters. (The last living member of Berta’s immediate family is her sister Crescentia, who lives in Prague, Czechoslovakia. A seventh child died in infancy.) Her family lived above the dry-goods store owned by her father, Adolf. Outside their windows loomed flower boxes and, beyond, the Alps.

Six-year-old Berta showed early creative talent, making doll clothes out of scraps from her father’s store. By the time she was 10, she had already established an artistic reputation, at least among her peers. She was a gifted caricaturist, and her friends implored her, “Sketch me, Berta!”

Bavaria was largely Catholic. Just 20 miles south of Massing is Oberammergau, site of the famous Passion Play. Berta’s family was devout. They attended Mass together and celebrated feast days.

Living as she did near the mountains, Berta excelled in outdoor sports like skiing, skating and even ice hockey. She had a cheerful temperament. Hummel means “bumblebee” in German, and that indeed was Berta, buzzing around with a zest for life.

She was so high-spirited that her third-grade teacher labeled her as “insubordinate.” But the following year, her teacher, Sister Theresilla, understood her better. Berta’s artistic talents flourished.

In many ways Berta had an idyllic childhood. She grew up in a tight-knit family, lived in a gorgeous area, reveled in the outdoors and devoured books like Tom Sawyer. Berta’s early years encouraged her natural innocence and optimism.

Yet as a child she also survived hard times. Battles of World War I were fought not far from her family home. Her father was called away to the army. To the front, young Berta sent drawings of her infant brother, whom he had yet to see.

When Berta was 12, based on Sister Theresilla’s recommendation, she was admitted to the Institute of English Sisters, a boarding school in Simbach about 20 miles from her home. Her talents continued to develop at the Institute and, after six years, she entered the prestigious Academy of Applied Arts in Munich. She rose to the top of her class in her four years there.

Her plan, heartily endorsed by her father, was to be an arts teacher. Adolf had himself once harbored artistic aspirations. Indeed, the Hummel family had a tradition in the arts. An 18th-century ancestor, Dominic Hummel, had been an accomplished painter-priest. Berta was to continue his calling in more ways than one.

Convergence of Faith, Art and Love

After a short time in Munich, Berta chose to bypass the typical student-living accommodations and chose instead a boardinghouse run by nuns. It was there that she met two Franciscan sisters who also were studying at the Academy.

The sisters were members of a teaching community which valued the arts. Her father argued that becoming a religious sister would ruin her as an artist. Though Berta herself wondered how she would fit in, she was encouraged to see that her two friends were still able to practice their craft.

She presented a challenge, it seemed, to religious discipline. At her boardinghouse, the mother superior would throw up her hands in frustration upon entering Berta’s room and seeing her sketches spread out all around. And Berta could not seem to learn how to comport herself. The nuns she lived with constantly corrected her, “Fraulein Hummel, will you ever learn to walk sedately?” or “Berta, please step quietly.”

In the end, her father gave his blessing and Berta became Sister Maria Innocentia. The other Franciscans agreed that was appropriate since she dearly loved the innocence of children. The Franciscan convent at Siessen was a community of about 250 sisters, most of whom were teachers. All the elements important to Berta—her faith, her art and her love for children—now neatly converged. She taught art at the convent school. As reward for good work, she gave her students original picture cards. Little did her beloved pupils know it, but their fine schoolwork was helping to stimulate the talent of a great artist!

The sisters, impressed with her skill and in need of income, decided to allow her a wider audience. They sent some of her work to a Munich publishing house which specialized in religious art. The company quickly reproduced some of her paintings as postcards, a popular medium in Germany. In 1934, it also published a collection of her drawings, called simply Das Hummel-Buch, with poetic text by Margarete Seemann.

Fortuitously, one of the book’s first buyers happened to be a craftsman at a porcelain factory in Oeslau. The factory where he made tableware and other products was on the verge of closing. He told the factory owner Franz Goebel of his idea to recreate Sister Hummel’s drawings as porcelain figurines. Goebel agreed and, after much hesitation, Sister Hummel, sympathetic to the plight of the factory’s many workers, gave her approval.

Across the Ocean in Duffel Bags

Sister Hummel spent much of her day in prayer and meditation. But she continued to draw. She also visited the Goebel factory periodically to oversee work on the figurines. One day an elderly worker rose and effusively thanked her for saving the jobs of the factory workers.

Sister Hummel remained humble despite her success. Once a woman reading The Hummel Book on a train noticed her fellow traveler’s (Sister Hummel) habit. She asked Sister Hummel if she was from the same community as the artist. “Yes, I am from the same community,” was her modest reply.

Interest in the figurines exploded after they were displayed in 1935 at the Leipzig Fair, a major international trade show. A decade later, the figurines began to enjoy great success in the United States when returning soldiers brought them home.

She Draws Out the Inner Child

Why did the Hummels stir such passion? Sister Hummel drew sketches of radiant, chubby-cheeked little children. She captured them in carefree times of play, or tramping joyously through leaves or snow, or enjoying one another’s company in giddy fellowship. Sister Hummel portrayed the moments of childhood stored in everyone’s memory. She was still in touch with the innocence of her own childhood, and her art gloried in the wonder, the freshness of youthful experience.

Not everyone loved Hummels. The Nazis, though they allowed Sister Hummel to work, banned the distribution of her art in Germany. The Nazis believed the Germans were the super race, and Sister Hummel’s depiction of children in patched clothes playing frivolous games irked them. Hitler himself attacked the art, denouncing the depiction of German children with “hydrocephalic heads.”

During World War II, religious communities throughout Germany suffered increased persecution, and in 1940 the Nazis closed all the Franciscan schools. Later that year they confiscated the motherhouse at Siessen. The nuns were ordered to vacate the building in 10 days to accommodate German refugees from Romania. Only 40 of the 250 sisters were allowed to stay, confined in one wing of the building. Sister Hummel returned to her family.

After three months, desperate to be with her community, Sister Hummel was allowed to return to the motherhouse by Mother Augustine, her superior. In a small sleeping room that doubled as her studio, she continued to draw. Even though the Nazis took half the profits, her work was the major source of income for her community.

The war years were difficult ones. Other refugees were brought to the convent. Food was scarce. The convent was unbearably cold in the winter. “What we suffered was indescribable,” wrote Mother Augustine.

Sister Hummel contracted tuberculosis in 1944 and was sent to a sanitorium in Isny. She returned to the convent after five months, and shortly thereafter French troops liberated the area. But Sister Hummel’s illness grew worse. At high noon on November 6, 1946, as the Angelus was ringing, she died. She is buried on the convent grounds at Siessen.

Sieglinde Schoen Smith, married and living in Ft. Worth, Texas, visited Sister Hummel’s grave at the convent in 1987. Hers is but one among many, marked like the others with a plain white tombstone. In death, says Sieglinde, Sister Hummel was allowed the same humility she displayed while alive.

Hummel Model Honors Memories

While in Germany, Sieglinde returned to the convent in Siessen. What happened on that visit borders on the miraculous.

Sister Witgard Erler, who was documenting Sister Hummel’s artwork at the time, had not been able to identify two entries connected to the Schoen family in the artist’s daily workbook. Two weeks before Sieglinde arrived, the nun had prayed in the chapel for help.

Sieglinde Schoen Smith (above) is the original “Child With Bluebells.” For the pastel portrait, she wore a dress embroidered by her grandmother. At left, the child Sieglinde picks wildflowers.

Photos courtesy of Sieglinde™ Schoen Smith

Sieglinde’s 1987 visit was exactly 45 years from the date of her visit in a dress decorated with bluebells. Once again, a kinderfest was being celebrated. While looking at postcards featuring Sister Hummel’s art, Smith remarked to her husband, William, how closely one resembled the drawing of herself. (She believes that Sister Hummel, working from photos, may have done other drawings based on her and her sisters.) Sister Witgard happened to overhear. “Fraulein Schoen?” she asked.

Sieglinde, who is passionately devoted to the memory of Berta Hummel, vowed to display Sister Hummel’s art in the United States, to which Smith had immigrated in 1963. Tracing the ownership of 280 original Hummels to the Jacques Nauer family in Switzerland, she found that their collection was packed in crates. She convinced the family that a U.S. museum was a better idea. In 1992 Sieglinde was instrumental in founding the not-for-profit Hummel Museum in New Braunfels, Texas, where she is special projects director. The museum has more than 280 pieces of original Hummel art as well as 1,500 figurines.

Work That Still Cheers

Sister Hummel left behind much more than art of children. She also drew fine religious art and nature scenes. Among her subjects were madonnas, angels and wayside shrines. Sieglinde Schoen says of Sister Hummel’s portraits, “You can see the inside person.” Of the natural elements, she observes that Sister Hummel’s flowers have an accuracy that would please any botanist.

Significantly, Sister Hummel also drew sketches that contained the Star of David, a bold, dangerous decision in those times. She portrayed angels in gowns covered with slightly skewed six-pointed stars. She also designed a series of Old and New Testament symbols for the convent chapel in 1938-39. She symbolized the juncture of the two Testaments by designing a cross with a menorah before it. She apparently had not only the innocence of children but also their bravery.

It was a time when “the force of evil seemed most determined to eradicate all that right-thinking men held sacred and inviolable,” wrote American Franciscan Sister M. Gonsalva Wiegand in a 1951 biography of Sister Hummel. The cheerful, talented Franciscan nun was “an opposing force of purity and consecrated service.

“She possessed in herself the power to see the bright side of ordinary human affairs,” continued Sister Gonsalva, “and translated it for the enjoyment and stimulation of her fellowmen.” Sieglinde adds, “Sister Hummel was a very special person. It didn’t matter how old you were, you could not forget her love and kindness.”

Today, Goebel ( artists still base their work on charcoal sketches and pastel drawings left by the prolific Franciscan artist. They discuss each new M.I. Hummel work of art with an artistic board at the same convent which Berta Hummel entered in 1931. A percentage of the profits from Hummel products still goes to the Siessen convent and supports the sisters’ missions. Innocence was not only Berta’s religious name but also her cheerful artistic signature. It seems fitting that her work still supports the care and education of children.

Sister Maria Innocentia’s death was noted in the Catholic newspaper of the Diocese of Regensburger, of which Massing is part. That obituary concluded, “A person’s work is the result of his inner being and personality. The works of Sister Innocentia were so strong, so real because behind them stood a person who strove with her whole being toward completeness, a person to whom art was the expression of devotion to the eternal beauty of God and at the same time the outpouring of a love for the people with whom she freely shared her inner riches.” To see her work is to share those riches still.

The Hummel Museum, 1900 Main Plaza, New Braunfels, TX 78130, is located 30 minutes north of San Antonio and is open year-round. It exists only through memberships and donations. Sketch Me, Berta Hummel, the first biography of Sister Maria Innocentia Hummel to be published in English, is available from the museum. It may also be purchased from Miller’s Hallmark and Gift Gallery in Eaton, Ohio, where an annual Hummel Festival attracts thousands of collectors. Call 1-937-456-4151 for information.

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“Friday’s Child and Her Biographer”

Jay Copp is a writer and editor at DePaul University in Chicago and a former associate editor of The New World, Chicago’s archdiocesan newspaper. He has a graduate degree from Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University, Chicago, and has contributed articles to Catholic publications such as U.S. Catholic, America, Catholic Digest and St. Anthony Messenger.

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