–by Maggie Esteves
Here’s one last belated post to round out Women’s History month, focusing on the controversial and influential American sculptor Vinnie Ream. Her statue of Abraham Lincoln stands right next to the Pioneers Monument created by the artist we highlighted previously, Adelaide Johnson.
Vinnie Ream was born in 1847 in Madison, Wisconsin; her family moved to Washington, DC at the start of the Civil War. She was introduced to Clark Mills, the famous sculptor who had a studio in the U.S. Capitol, through acquaintances at her job as a clerk in the U.S. Postal Service’s dead letter office. It was in Mills’ studio that she had her first experiences with sculpting.
Ream, renowned for her feminine beauty with dark eyes and rich black curled hair, quickly found herself in the midst of the masculine sphere of politics in the nation’s capitol. Working in Mills’ studio, she sculpted such prominent figures as Representative Thaddeus Stevens, journalist Horace Greeley and Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Ream seemed to understand at the tender age of 17 the importance of building not only her artistic, but also her social, portfolio and was able to enhance both under the tutelage of Mills.
In 1866 Congress authorized a $10,000 commission for a statue of Abraham Lincoln to be placed in the Capitol. Ream had completed a bust of Lincoln the year before which received much acclaim. (She claimed throughout her life that Lincoln had sat for the sculpting in person in the White House over a five-month period. However, there is no evidence other than her word that suggests Lincoln and Ream ever met.) Using her political sway, lobbying skills and, at times, her feminine wiles, 18-year-old Vinnie Ream was able to secure 178 signatures from prominent men, including President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant, on a testimonial to give her the Lincoln commission.
Thaddeus Stevens pushed the resolution naming Ream as the sculptor through the House on the day before Congress adjourned, giving it as little time for debate as possible. It was met with opposition in the Senate led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, who said of Ream’s skills that “you might as well place her on the staff of General Grant.” However, her supporters in the Senate likened her swift rise in the art world to that of her “fellow Westerner” Lincoln in the political realm—they both possessed the untrained “native genius” of the West.
Ream became the first woman to receive a congressional commission. The statue was unveiled in 1871 when Ream was 23.
Ream would marry Lieutenant Richard Hoxie in 1878 and subsequently limit her sculpting to take on the roles of wife and mother, but she remained very social in Washington. She would sculpt two more statues now part of the Statuary Hall Collection: Samuel J. Kirkwood, Iowa’s governor during the Civil War, and Sequoyah, the Cherokee leader. Ironically, Kirkwood had been one of the senators who had strongly opposed giving Ream the Lincoln statue commission that catapulted her career.
She died in 1914 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery under a replica of her own sculpture of Sappho.
Vinnie Ream carved out a place for herself in the hyper-masculine 19th-century political arena using both an entrepreneurial spirit and feminine charm. While her rise in the public sphere may have stirred controversy, her skill in executing the iconic Lincoln statue has stood the test of time. Throughout March we highlighted women who rose above an additional set of challenges to find their place in a previously all-male world. Vinnie Ream’s accomplishments made the way a bit smoother for female artists of today.
Architect of the Capitol
Kennon, Donald R. and Thomas P. Somma, eds. American Pantheon: Sculptural and Artistic Decoration of the United States Capitol. 2004.
Kort, Carol and Liz Sonneborn. A to Z of American Women in the Visual Arts. 2002.
Sherwood, Glenn V. A Labor of Love: The Life and Art of Vinnie Ream. 1997.