I think I’ve always known a little about Hummels, the little figurines that were so popular a few decades ago (although I think it’s time we all stop hoping to become millionaires off of grandma’s Hummel collection), but I never thought to learn anything about their creator until today. It turns out that today is her birthday, and she lived a fascinating – though short – life.
Born Berta Hummel on May 21, 1909 in Germany, she joined a Franciscan convent in her early twenties, taking the name Sister Maria Innocentia. She had always been a good artist, and soon became the art teacher at the Sisters’ school. Her free time was spent painting pictures of children. The other nuns were so impressed by her artwork that they sent it to a publisher. Soon her work appeared on postcards and then, thanks for Franz Goebel, as porcelain figurines throughout Germany.
However, Sister Maria was painting during the late 1930s, and her innocent, childish figures were seen as ridiculous, insulting, and unacceptable as the Nazi party gained power. To make matters worse, she made several pieces showing Old and New Testament imagery, created a symbol showing the cross and the menorah, and even painted the Star of David in some pieces.
During World War II, the school was closed, along with much of the convent, and the remaining nuns found themselves without any real means of support. Thankfully, Sister Maria was able to sell her paintings. Although the Nazis took half of that income, the rest kept the Sister from starving. Shortly after the war, on November 6, 1946, Sister Maria passed away from tuberculosis at the age of 37.
And there you have it – the story behind those little figurines so often imitated, so very prevalent, and so frequently ignored. Although they were popular in Europe before the war, many American GIs brought them home as souvenirs after, and the became immensely popular in the U.S. for the next few decades.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in.”