May 21 – Happy Birthday, Sister Maria Hummel

Posted on May 21, 2014

Here's a nice change: a story of an artist whose life was mostly very pleasant and nice.

Until Hitler and World War II, that is. But we'll get to that later.

Berta Hummel was born in Bavaria, Germany. Her family was large and loving and happy, two parents and six kids living above the dry goods store that was the family business.

Bavaria is beautiful mountain country – the Alps! – and Hummel was a cheerful girl who loved the outdoors as well as drawing. The town thought of her as “the artist,” and she ended up going to the Academy of Applied Arts in Munich.

Hummel was very religious and decided to become a nun. As Sister Maria Innocentia (her religious name), Hummel taught art to children. But she continued to make her own original art, too, and the other nuns sent it out to a company for possible publication.

Indeed, the company was very interested. At the time, in the early 1930s, postcards with artwork were very popular, and the company released many of Hummel's drawings as postcards. It also published a collection of her drawings.

Enter Franz Goebel; he owned a porcelain company, and he was on the lookout for art he could translate into figurines. He loved Hummel's pictures of rosy-cheeked children, and he asked if he could have the rights to the drawings for manufacturing as figurines.

The figurines began to be a big financial success, and I read in one source that the Hummel figurines were the main source of income for all of the Sisters.

But it was at this point that Hitler comes into the story. And of course, the story turns from happy and successful to difficult and tragic:

Hitler apparently hated Hummel's art and said that she was presenting the world with a picture of German children having “hydrocephalic heads.” (Hydrocephalus is medical condition that can cause enlargement of the head.) The Nazis allowed Hummel to work and took half of the money generated from the work – but they wouldn't allow anyone in Germany to sell or buy the figurines. And the Nazis seized the convent and forced most of the Sisters to leave; those who remained were forced to live in one small section of the convent without heat. Food was scarce, and the nuns relied on the Hummel sales (after the Nazis got their cut) for the little bit that they had. The nuns suffered, and Hummel ended up catching tuberculosis. She died at age 37.

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