William Henry Cotton was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1885. He studied at the Cowles Art School in Boston and then in 1900 at the Académie Julian in Paris under Jean-Pierre Laurens. Cotton worked as a portraitist for private clients and as an illustrator for various national magazines in New York City.
Cotton exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1907, Corcoran Gallery in 1908 and 1914, Dallas Museum of Art in 1909, Boston Art Club in 1916, Art Institute of Chicago, and Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1909, 1912, and from 1915 to 1926. He was a member of the Newport Art Association and was an associate member of the National Academy of Design.