A hidden treasure revealed

Gift from historian’s estate to Port retail shop shines light on the life of Gustav Hensel, a prolific artist of some renown who was a pastor in Saukville 80 years ago

HIDDEN TREASURES MANAGER Litha Mueller displayed “Jesus Blessing the Sacraments” by Gustav Hensel, which was recently donated to the resale shop by the estate of Saukville historian Jim Peterson. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

The story of a mostly forgotten former Saukville pastor came to life again recently when the Hidden Treasures resale store in Port Washington received the donation of a painting from the estate of local historian Jim Peterson, who died in November.

The painting, “Jesus Blessing the Sacraments,” is by the Rev. Gustav Adolph Hensel, who led St. Peter’s Church in Saukville from 1931 to 1940. He was perhaps not a significant artist, but one of some renown whose works today can be found in museums and auction houses, usually fetching several hundred dollars.

One of his works, “Orientalist View of a Mosque,” has an asking price of $1,800 in a San Francisco art house.

The donated painting belonged to Saukville historian Peterson, who made numerous donations, including other works by Hensel, to the Oscar Grady Library, the Saukville Historical Society and to his church, St. Peter’s, now called Parkside Community UCC.

The most locally prominent of Hensel’s paintings, “Agony in the Garden,” can be found dominating the foyer of Parkside UCC.

The one donated to Hidden Treasures was special to Peterson, however.

“This one was in his house,” said Bill Ballbach, a friend of Peterson. “He gave all of (Hensel’s) paintings he owned away, but he kept this one.”

Even when Peterson moved to a nursing home, it was one of the few possessions he took with him, Ballbach said.

“He wanted that picture with him,” Ballbach said.

Hensel, who often went by Dolph and signed his paintings “D. Hensel,” was born in 1874 in Paris to German parents.

According to a 1953 obituary published in the Port Washington Pilot, Hensel was the son of a military diplomat in the court of German Kaiser Wilhelm. 

As the eldest of seven children, he could have inherited his father’s title but instead chose the ministry, incurring his father’s wrath.

According to an article written by Peterson for the church, Hensel’s mother was a Russian princess who was later killed during the Russian Revolution of 1917.

She first taught him to paint and he went on to study with German masters, including one Peruvian, the obituary says.

According to Peterson’s article, Hensel was engaged to marry a Russian woman who died unexpectedy. He remained a bachelor his entire life.

He came to the U.S. in 1906, settled in Wisconsin and later moved to San Francisco where he pastored until 1922 when he went to Africa and served several years there as a medical missionary.

He returned to the United States after contracting malaria, joining St. Peter’s as pastor in 1931. 

He retired in 1940 and bought a house at the corner of Dries and Center streets in Saukville, where he lived, Peterson wrote. 

In 1944, he moved back to the San Francisco Bay area. He died in San Jose in 1953 at the age of 79.

According to the obituary, one of his works, “Temptation,” was a prize winner at the 1915 World’s Fair in San Francisco. Another, the 12-by-8-foot “Jesus Teaching by the Sea,” was placed in the Masonic Chapel in Woodlawn Memorial Park in San Francisco and valued at $50,000. 

Hensel is buried at Woodlawn.

As an artist, he focused on religious-themes, California pastorals and North African scenes. 

“He painted thousands of pictures during his lifetime,” Peterson wrote. “He distributed these paintings to his friends, churches and institutions (most of them gratis). These paintings are held as prized possessions by those who possess them.”

“Unfortunately, like for so many painters, his acknowledgement came after his death,” Anne Kertscher, president of the Saukville Historical Society said. Peterson donated several Hensel works to the society, she said.

Kertscher said many of his paintings show a “lighthearted” bent not readily apparent in some of his other works.

For instance, in one painting, a bishop or cardinal, is asleep while a monk works on his portrait, giving the prelate an angelic facial expression.

Doris Feider-Schlenvogt, with Hidden Treasures, said Peterson was “very generous” to the store, donating many items that often had historic significance.

Sales at Hidden Treasures benefit Ozaukee Christian School in Saukville, 

“It was wonderful that the very last thing he gave us was a picture of Jesus,” she said.  “And we never knew him. He never came in.”


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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