Did you know that the Linn-Henley Research Library, the first free-standing home of the Birmingham Public Library, displays murals from prominent American muralist Ezra Winter? We visited the historic building to get a closer look 🧐
About the Artist
Born into a farming family in Michigan in 1886, Ezra Winter pursued art from an early age. In 1908, he enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago; then, awarded a three-year residency at the American Academy in Rome in 1914. Over the next three decades, Ezra Winter painted countless murals in prestigious places like the Rockefeller Center, the Library of Congress and—of course—Birmingham’s Linn-Henley Research Library.
Ezra Winter’s work includes:
- The Thomas Jefferson and Canterbury Tales murals in the Library of Congress’ John Adams Building, Washington, D.C.
- The Fountain of Youth mural at the Radio City Music Hall in the Rockefeller Center in Midtown Manhattan, New York City
- A six-story banking hall mural for the Guardian Building in Detroit, Michigan
Sadly, Ezra Winter’s career came to a sudden end in 1949. While painting the final of seven murals for the Bank of Manhattan, Ezra stepped back and fell a considerable height from his scaffolding, fracturing and compacting his tailbone. The accident left him with constant pain and an unsteady hand. Unable to paint, Ezra Winter took his own life a month later at the age of 63.
In the late 1920s, the Birmingham Library Board hired Ezra Winter to paint a series of murals in the newly-built library building. The previous library, housed inside Birmingham City Hall, fell victim to the 1925 City Hall fire.
Ezra Winter created the oil-on-canvas murals in his New York Studio, then personally supervised the installation of his murals in the library. Displayed in the library’s main reading room, the mural series contains 16 scenes from famous works of literature from around the globe.
In addition, Ezra Winter painted a mural depicting famous fairy tales, displayed in the library’s children’s reading room.
1. American: John Smith and Pocahontas
“Matoaka, nicknamed Pocahontas meaning “playful”, was the daughter of Powhatan, an Indian chief of Virginia. She rescued John Smith, head of Jamestown’s governing council, from the wrath of her father. Later she married John Rolfe, a Jamestown settler and their marriage brought peace between the Indians and colonists for eight years. The legendary story is related in John Smith’s General Histories of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles.“Birmingham Public Library
2. Arabian: Shahryar and Shahrazad
“The Thousand and One Nights, popularly known as the Arabian Nights, is a collection of otherwise unrelated stories which are unified by Shahrazad, the teller of tales. For a thousand and one nights she entertained her husband, the Sultan of Shahryar, who spared her life from one dawn to the next in order that she might continue to captivate him with her enchanting stories.”Birmingham Public Library
3. Chinese: Confucious
“Confucius, the great sage of Ancient China, was both a teacher and philosopher. From the age of twenty-two until his death at the age of seventy-three, Confucius traveled among the people spreading his ideas of loyalty, righteousness and humility. He is noted for his collection and preservation of ancient Chinese literature. Since the time of the Han dynasty, the teachings of Confucius have been acknowledged and respected by the rulers of China and have formed the basis of Chinese education.”Birmingham Public Library
4. Egyptian: Isis and Ramses II
“Isis, the Goddess of Love and Justice, presents a small clay figure of Truth to her godson Ramses II, who later became one of the most glorious rulers of Egypt. He was also Egypt’s most famous builder, but it was his valor as a young man in the battle of Kadesh which inspired one of the world’s first epic poems. This great poem was recorded on temple walls and papyrus during the reign of Ramses II.”Birmingham Public Library
5. English: Lancelot
“Lancelot, the most famous knight of King Arthur’s Round Table, is depicted in English literature as the flower of chivalry. The story of Lancelot’s heroic deeds, including his search of the Holy Grail, is told against the background for his illicit love for Guinevere, King Arthur’s wife. Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, written in the 15th century, emphasizes the tragedy of Lancelot’s imperfection, for he was otherwise the epitome of chaste knighthood.”Birmingham Public Library
6. French: Celimene and Alceste
“A scene from seventeenth century Parisian salon life is captured in Moliere’s comedy play, Le Misanthrope. Alceste vows to speak and act with complete honesty and no longer adhere to the conventions of a hypocritical society. He is in love with the vain coquette Celimene who presides over the salon and represents all that he detests. Before Alceste will marry Celimene, he demands that she give up her role in society. When she refuses, Alceste is forced to depart alone.”Birmingham Public Library
7. German: Faust and Margaret
“The legendary figure of Faust has his foundation in the historical person, Dr. Faustus, a magician and charlatan of the early sixteenth century. In the famous German dramatic poem by Goethe, Faust promises his soul to Mephistopheles in order to realize his ambitious thirst for knowledge and experience. His destiny is linked to the trusting Margaret whom he seduces and later sees destroyed. In spite of his evil nature, Faust’s soul is eventually saved by a choir of heavenly spirits.”Birmingham Public Library
8. Greek: Bellerophon and Pegasus
“Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology, stands ready to be ridden by Bellerophon, the poet who captured him with a magic bridle, the gift of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. According to legend, it is from the hoofprint of Pegasus on Mount Helicon that the Muses’ fountain of inspiration sprang. Pegasus eventually flew to heaven to take his place among the constellations.”Birmingham Public Library
9. Hebrew: David
“David, the Hebrew shepherd lad, saved his people through courage and faith in his God when he defeated the Philistine giant, Goliath. A gifted musician, David composed the Psalms of the Old Testament which he sang to soothe the troubled mind of Saul, King of Israel. These beautiful passages are recognized as one of the rich gifts of the Hebrew people to the literature of the world.”Birmingham Public Library
10. Hindu: Krishna and Radha
“Krishna, an incarnation of the god Vishnu, is the hero of the Bhagavata Purana, a Hindu sacred text of the tenth century. Part of the work tells of Krishna’s adventures among the cow herds of Vrindavana and his love for their wives and daughters. In one tale, he attracts the village milkmaids to the forest with his enchanting flute music. Radha, whose husband bound her and refused to let her go, abandoned her body and reached Krishna first, thus exemplifying the popular idea of love.”Birmingham Public Library
11. Italian: Dante and Virgil
“Two great poets meet in Dante’s major work, The Divine Comedy. Lost in the Wood of Error on Good Friday, 1300 A.D., Dante is met by Virgil’s spirit who manifests the highest knowledge attainable. To free Dante from temptation, Virgil guides him through Hell and Purgatory where their journey together ends because man alone, without grace, can go no further. There, Dante meets Beatrice, who represents divine revelation, and she conducts him through Paradise to God.”Birmingham Public Library
12. Japanese: Otohime and Ura-Shima Ta-ro
“Ura-Shima Ta-ro, a fisherlad, finds a tortoise on the beach and throws it back into the sea. For his thoughtfulness, he is taken to the palace of the Sea King and marries his daughter, Otohime. After the marriage, Ura-Shima Ta-ro opens a casket given him by his bride. A white cloud, the symbol of time, escapes and surrounds Ura-Shima Ta-ro, whereupon he becomes an old man and dies. This tale is preserved in the Man’yoshu which means Ten Thousand Leaves.”Birmingham Public Library
13. Persian: Sadi
“Sadi, an early Persian poet and philosopher, is the author of the Gulistan, translated in English as the Rose Garden. Sadi considered his beautifully written fragments of thought to be rose petals saved for his friends from the gardens of his meditations. Born in Shira in 1292 A.D., Sadi was immensely popular because of his deep understanding of human nature and his simple lucid style.”Birmingham Public Library
14. Russian: Igor
“The legend of Igor Svatoslavic, a young Novgorod-Severesk prince, is celebrated in the earliest known Russian epic, The Tale of Igor’s Campaign. His exploits during 1185 A.D. against the Polovtsian nomads of the south are recounted in this epic. The original manuscript was burned during the Moscow Fire of 1812, but a second copy was found among Catherine the Great’s papers.”Birmingham Public Library
15. Scandinavian: Sigurd and Brynhild
“The mythological story of Sigurd and Brynhild is narrated in the Second Edda by Snorri Sturleson (1178-1241 A.D.). This Icelandic tale reappears in German literature as the Niebelungenlied and is performed as the opera, Der Ring des Niebelungen. Sigurd, a renowed dragonslayer, becomes the hero as he and his mount, Grani, ride through a wall of fire to rescue Brynhild and awaken her from her enchanted sleep imposed upon her by King Odin.”Birmingham Public Library
16. Spanish: Don Quixote
“The early 17th century work, Don Quixote, was conceived while its author, Cervantes, was in prison. The novel displays a panoramic view of Spanish society while satirizing the exaggerated chivalric romances of the day. Don Quixote de la Mancha, with his squire Sancho Panza, sets out to right the world’s wrongs. Deluded by his imagination, however, Don Quixote jousts with windmills instead of knights and battles armies of sheep instead of men.”Birmingham Public Library
The Children’s Reading Room Mural
Just like the murals in the main reading room, Ezra Winter’s murals in the Children’s Reading Room feature scenes from beloved works of literature. Which scenes can you identify?
Visit the Linn-Henley Research Library and see for yourself
The best way to appreciate Ezra Winter’s murals is in person. Luckily, the Linn-Henley Research Library is very easy to get to!
- Address: 2100 Park Place, Birmingham, AL 35203
- Hours: Monday — Saturday, 9AM to 6PM
Currently, the Linn-Henley Research Library is open by appointment only. Please call the library at 205.226.3665 to schedule an appointment.
However, face masks are required at all Birmingham Public Library locations—so be sure to pack one before you leave!
Which of Ezra Winter’s murals is your favorite? Tag us @bhamnow on social media to let us know!