William Penhallow Henderson has been called a polymath, a contemporary Renaissance man. Henderson became an architect in the new Old Santa Fe style and creator of unique new furniture that combined an Arts and Crafts sensibility with New Mexican design elements.
Henderson spent twelve years in Chicago, and was a successful instructor at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. His portraits were sought after and a 1909 journalist reported that Henderson was "voted by Lake Forest society as the greatest portrait painter in Illinois." Reviews of his one-man and group exhibitions of paintings and pastels in Chicago, Boston and New York were with few exceptions positive, praising him as a "man of instinctive refinement and virile personality." Henderson was also active as a theatrical set designer and muralist, completing works in Ilinois and France.
In 1916, Henderson arrived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and moved into an adobe home on Camino del Monte Sol (then Telephone Road). Soon after his move, he became and active participant in the growing Santa Fe art colony. His sketches, pastels and paintings embraced his new surroundings and subjects discovered among his Hispanic neighbors on the Camino del Monte Sol and on wide ranging horse back trips with his daughter, Alice, to surrounding Indian Pueblos and Hispanic villages. Early critical reviews of his New Mexico pastels and paintings were positive. In a review of his paintings exhibited at Roullier's Galleries, the Chicago Examiner praised the "new Henderson." The Chicago Sunday Tribune noted, "Henderson had… Found something new in that historic land" in "… delightful interpretations of churches, cañons, mountains, natives and inhabitants of New Mexico." Henderson was soon part of Santa Fe's new intellectual milieu of artists, writers and archeologists. He was included in the inaugural group show at the new Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe that opened in 1917.
Due in large part to the economic realities of his new life in New Mexico, Henderson himself designed and constructed his studio on Camino del Monte Sol in 1919, and from 1923-24 built his home in the new Pueblo Revival style on land adjacent to the recently completed studio. Henderson was soon recognized for his expertise in adobe construction and promptly found himself as a building mentor to the younger Cinco Pintores artists as they struggled to master the nuances of adobe construction in their own homes on the Camino.
In 1925, Henderson, along with John Evans and Edwin Brooks, formed the Pueblo-Spanish Building Company to pursue architectural and construction projects. He also designed furniture, and his early furniture was based on Spanish designs that were modified for the local artisans in his shop. Soon, Henderson developed a furniture style improvised from local Hispanic and Pueblo architecture and crafts. This furniture was not revival, but rather sampled indigenous New Mexico design elements to create a unique oeuvre of furniture design.
Henderson's work is included in many museum collections including the Denver Art Museum, Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art, Hubbell Trading Post National Historic Site, Jonson Gallery of the University of New Mexico and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.