Visual Art and Poetry


This guided exploration investigates the links between poetry and visual art, through deep looking and study of information surrounding William Penhallow Henderson’s drawing and Walt Whitman’s poem of the same name: When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d, as well as the historical event that inspired Whitman’s work. The curriculum includes an audio recording of a dramatic reading of the poem and a video discussion between two literary scholars who offer an in-depth analysis of the text and the relationship with Henderson’s painting.


Objective(s) for younger students: focus on the idea of the artist creating a visual image inspired by a poem, which was, in turn, inspired by an event; establish a basic awareness of the artist, poet, and historical connection to Abraham Lincoln/Civil War.

Objective(s) for older students: explore the connections between the drawing and the poem; consider the historical foundations of the subject material, poet, and artist; discuss themes relevant to contemporary issues.

Key Skills

  • Literacy: visual, reading, writing
  • Historical analysis
  • Textual analysis
  • Historical research
  • Writing & composition

Cross-curricular Connections

  • English Literature (poetry)
  • History
  • Literacies: visual, reading, writing
  • Drawing

Curriculum Images

William Penhallow Henderson, When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d, circa 1909, pastel on brown wove paper, 8 1/2 x 25 1/2 in. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Edgar L. Rossin, 1969 (2571.23P).
William Penhallow Henderson, Morning (Mural for the Santa Fe Country Club), 1920, oil and encaustic, 36 x 55 5/8 in. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Colonel Norman J. and Gwendolyn E. Riebe, 1978 (4232.23P).
William Penhallow Henderson, Landscape (Cerro Gordo Before the Sangre de Cristo Mountains), circa 1930, oil on board, 32 x 40 in. On long term loan to the New Mexico Museum of Art from the Fine Arts Program, Public Buildings Service, U.S. General Services Administration (2831.23P). Photo by Blair Clark.

William Penhallow Henderson: Overview & Background

William Penhallow Henderson was an American artist, architect, and furniture-maker. He was born in 1877 in Medford, Massachusetts to parents who valued the consumption of and participation in the arts. From a young age, Henderson’s artistic pursuits were encouraged, and, as his talents developed, he was led to seek ways to provide financial support with his skills e.g. scholarships, commissions, teaching, etc.

Henderson attended the Museum of Fine Arts School, Boston, where he mastered the technical skills of academic drawing and painting. During his trip to Europe to study the great masters, Henderson showed a great reverence for seventeenth-century Spanish artist Diego Velázquez and the straightforward way he depicted his subjects. Though Henderson tended to be more academic in his early career, he found inspiration in the work of James Abbot McNeill Whistler, particularly the latter’s use of color and various elements from Japanese woodblock prints.

After his European travels, Henderson moved to Chicago in 1904 to teach at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts. He married poet Alice Corbin in 1905. She was co-editor of Poetry magazine and introduced Henderson to a new social circle of poets and other free thinking, creative minds.

During his time in Chicago, Henderson was regularly exhibiting his pastels and oils in exhibitions both locally and in New York and Boston. In addition to this work, he also illustrated an edition of Anderson’s Best Fairy Tales translated by Alice Corbin (from the German), using wood-block prints.

At Left: William Penhallow Henderson, He Stood Up on His Hind Legs (From the book Anderson Fairy Tales), circa 1910, ink on paper cardboard, 6 15/16 × 4 15/16 in. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Nathaniel O. and Paige Allen Owings, 1999 (1999.61.5f).

He also designed and painted the scenery for a production of Alice in Wonderland (see detail below). Before their move to the Southwest, Henderson was commissioned by architect Frank Lloyd Wright to create murals for Midway Gardens. These murals were eventually painted over but were considered a prestigious success.

In 1916 the Henderson, his wife, and daughter were forced to move to Santa Fe because of Alice’s poor health. She contracted tuberculosis and needed to relocate to a dryer climate at a higher elevation. In Santa Fe, they found a supportive community of archaeologists, artists, writers, and other creative minds. Henderson began drawing and painting the subjects his new home provided. He even designed and produced scenery and costumes for a production of The Daughter of Heaven performed at the Alhambresque Scottish Rite Temple.

In order to supplement his income, Henderson co-founded the Pueblo-Spanish Building Company, which built homes in Santa Fe and other parts of New Mexico. Those homes went on to inspire designs for buildings in other parts of the country, such as Colorado, Arizona, and Oklahoma. He also collaborated to design and construct the House of Navajo Religion, which is now the Wheelwright Museum of American Indian Art in Santa Fe. Henderson also began designing and carving handmade furniture to sell, distributing works as far as New York and Boston.

Henderson’s academic background can be seen in the careful planning and organization of his drawings and paintings. His sketchbooks demonstrate an interest in Dynamic Symmetry, which is a theory of composition that uses specific geometric frameworks to make sure a work has flow, rhythm, and balance. Henderson’s exploration of color and its expressive quality may seem contrary to this systematic approach to painting. Many link this development in Henderson’s artistic practice to his earlier affinity for Whistler and Japanese prints. Color theory was very important to Henderson, and his journals also reflect his mission to create rhythmic and ideal color patterns. Henderson’s artistic style is described as falling between Realism and Romanticism, as well as being in-line with the Romantic-Modern tradition.

Henderson lived the rest of his life in New Mexico, until his death in 1943.

Above: William Penhallow Henderson, March Hare’s Garden (set design for Alice in Wonderland), circa 1914-1915, pastel on paper, 4 5/8 × 9 3/8 in. Collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art. Gift of Nathaniel O. and Paige Allen Owings, 1999 (1999.61.6e).

Listen to “When Lilacs…” by Walt Whitman

A dramatized reading of Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” produced by the New Mexico Museum of Art. Available for download.

Lesson Plan

Part 01: Visual Literacy 

Have students look at the drawing, When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d by William Penhallow Henderson, and share their observations. We recommend using questions like the following to ensure the students’ guide the discussion: 

  • What’s going on in this picture?  
  • What do you see that makes you say that? 
  • What more can we find?

Part 02: Context and Historical Connections

Depending on how far you want to go, this next step is where you introduce the information about the drawing (artist, title, dates, etc.) as well as its connection to the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman. You can decide if you want to spend time discussing the historical element of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War and/or the biography and other poems by Whitman.

Part 03: Poetry

 If you are emphasizing poetry, then you can likely give just a brief overview for the context and historical connections. If you need resources to help teach your students the basics of poetry, we will have a couple suggestions:

Henderson was also married to the poet Alice Corbin, and that may be an interesting thread to follow with your students.

Read Whitman’s poem out loud to your students and have them sketch notes/images while you recite. Alternatively, the class can listen to the audio recording provided in this curriculum together. It may be helpful to give each student a copy of the poem and the drawing to take notes on as they listen to the recitation. Next, discuss what the students could find in the visual imagery. You may need to have students listen to the poem more than once.

For criticism/analysis on the poem:

Part 04: Drawing Activity

 Ask the students to illustrate a poem. We’ve provided three options based on amount of difficulty, but feel free to choose your own. Read the selected poem out loud at least once so the students can hear and sketch at the same time. 

Part 05: Writing Activity

Now you will ask the students to choose one (or both) of the images included in this curriculum and write a poem about it. 

Video: Whitman Scholars in Dialogue

Dr. Jess Goldberg and Dr. Jake Fournier discuss the work of Walt Whitman and his poem When Lilacs Last in the Door Yard Bloom’d. In this discussion they also explore the William Penhallow Henderson pastel that was inspired by the poem.

Bibliography & Further Reading

William Penhallow Henderson: Master Colorist of Santa Fe. (1984). Phoenix Art Museum.
An excellent resource for biographical data on Henderson as well as a comprehensive analysis of his artistic influences, inspirations, and theories.Age: Middle School


Michals, Duane (1996). Salute, Walt Whitman. Twin Palms Press.
In this monograph combining sequential images with the poetry, interviews, and diary text of Walt Whitman, noted photographer Duane Michals pays tribute to Whitman as one of his lifelong spiritual and artistic inspirations.  An excellent example of the interplay between literature, visual art, and history.

Age: High School


Voss, Frederick S. (2000). Portraits of the Presidents: The National Portrait Gallery. Smithsonian Institution.
Frederick Voss, the National Portrait Gallery’s Senior Historian, explains the creation and historical significance of presidential portraiture.  Of particular interest is the importance of image during political campaigns, even in the time of Abraham Lincoln.

Age: Middle School +


Lehner, Ernest and Johanna. (1960). Folklore and Symbolism of Flowers, Plants, and Trees. Tudor Publishing Company.
This comprehensive study illustrates more than 200 types of flora, exploring their symbolic associations, historical uses and how botanical symbolism has passed down through the ages to continually influence how we use plants in artistic expression.

Age: Middle School +


Henderson, Alice Corbin. (1928). The Turquoise Trail: An Anthology of New Mexico Poetry. Houghton Mifflin Company.
Alice Corbin was a fulcrum point for the intersection of poets and visual artists in New Mexico. This anthology includes the work of famous authors like Willa Cather and D.H. Lawrence alongside painters like Marsden Hartley.

Age: Middle School +


Corbin, A., Rudnick, L.P. & Zieselman, E. (2003). Red Earth: Poems of New Mexico. Museum of New Mexico Press.
Originally published in 1920, this modern edition pairs Corbin’s poems with artwork from the collection of the New Mexico Museum of Art, finding visual ‘equivalents’ for the ideas and emotions evoked by Corbin’s poetry.

Age: Middle School +

Whitman, Walt. (2003). Complete Prose Works: Specimen Days and Collect, November Boughs and Goodbye My Fancy. Project Gutenberg.

This comprehensive collection of Whitman’s prose is a treasure trove of insights into the time period. Of particular interest are his entries related to Abraham Lincoln, whom he greatly admired and frequently observed.

Age: Middle School +


The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana. Library of Congress.

This collection of primary source material on President Lincoln includes portraits, letters, photographs and broadsides, cartoons, speeches and more.

Age: Middle School +


Cohen, M., Folsom, E. & Price, K.M. , Eds. (n.d.). The Walt Whitman Archive.

Extensive primary source material related to Whitman as well as links to additional resources, criticism, and modern recordings of his poetry.

On Lincoln:

Elliot, Dr. Kimberly Kutz. (n.d.) Abraham Lincoln and Northern Memory. SmartHistory: The Center for Public Art History.

Kutz examines depictions of Abraham Lincoln in cartoons, engravings, paintings, and sculpture throughout history and asks how the 16th president came to be recognized as a symbol of freedom and honesty despite his administration’s policies to dispossess Indigenous people of their lands. Kutz’s essay “…examine[s] visual depictions of Abraham Lincoln, whose image has mirrored the broader project of northern Civil War memory and mythmaking.”

Age: Middle School +


On Poetry:

Nemerov, H. (2022, August 13). poetry. Encyclopedia Britannica.

MasterClass. (2022, August 31). Poetry 101: Learn About Poetry, Different Types of Poems, and Poetic Devices With Examples.


Civil War in New Mexico:

Waldrip, William I. “New Mexico During the Civil War.” New Mexico Historical Review 28, 3 (1953).


Criticism/ Analysis of Poem from the Whitman Archive:

‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d’ [1865] Author: French, R.W. Print source: J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Walt Whitman Quarterly Review Violence in Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” Patricia Lee Yongue Volume 1, Number 4 ( 1984) pps. 12-20 Stable URL: ISSN 0737-0679



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