• Email
  • Print

Making It

Vinnie Ream, the sculptor who was once famous for the statue she made of Abraham Lincoln following his death, has not been forgotten. There is a Vinnie Ream Web site, which displays her speeches, photographs, and pictures of statues by her.1 Half a dozen other sites offer biographical information and describe the collections of her papers. There is a Vinnie Ream Room at the headquarters of the National League of American Pen Women in Washington. A town in Oklahoma, Vinita, is named after her, and it has a Vinnie Ream Cultural Center.

More to the point here, Vinnie Ream’s works have been discussed in twenty-three books published during the last four decades. She has been the subject of an “epistolary novel” for juveniles, Maureen Stack Sappey’s Letters from Vinnie, and of an excellent short biography, again for young people, Dawn Langley Simmons’s Vinnie Ream: The Story of the Girl Who Sculptured Lincoln. In 1971 the authoritative Notable American Women included an appreciative sketch of her life. Recently Glenn V. Sherwood has produced Labor of Love: The Life and Art of Vinnie Ream,2 a handsome book that includes photographs of all the sculptor’s known works. And now we have Edward S. Cooper’s briefer, more sharply focused biography, which skillfully exploits the unpublished papers, journals, and scrapbooks of Vinnie Ream in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.

Even so, it is safe to say that most readers will never have heard of Vinnie Ream. That is a pity, because her story tells a great deal about the public art of nineteenth-century America and even more about the options women had in that heavily male-dominated society.

Vinnie Ream was born in 1847 in Madison, Wisconsin, to a family of modest means and accomplishments. Her father, a government surveyor in the West, moved his family around a good deal, so that her education was necessarily skimpy and sporadic. For a short time she attended Christian College, in Columbia, Missouri, where she excelled in musical performances and in elocution. The Ream family turned up in Washington at the outbreak of the Civil War, where her father found a job in the cartography section of the War Department. To supplement the family income, Vinnie, though still a child, went to work in the post office.

In 1863 her life changed when she visited the studio of Clark Mills, the sculptor who had executed the spirited equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson that stands in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Watching Mills shaping the clay to create a likeness, she blurted out: “I could do that!” Amused, the sculptor gave her some clay and told her to copy the bust of an Indian chief. The medallion she produced was so skillful that he offered to take her on as a student and assistant. Soon she began making medallions and busts of prominent congressmen and generals.

Her most successful production was a bust of Abraham Lincoln, for which she later asserted he sat almost daily in half-hour sessions during the last months of his life. Neither Cooper nor her previous biographers has expressed skepticism about her claim, though none of Lincoln’s close associates ever reported seeing her in the White House and her name is not mentioned in contemporary letters. It is possible, according to Harold Holzer, the authority on Lincoln iconography, that she was allowed one or two sittings to “take the measurements,” as sculptors say.3 Doubtless she relied heavily on photographs and on the 1865 life mask that Clark Mills had made. At any rate her Lincoln bust was much admired.

After the death of Lincoln she saw an opportunity and petitioned Congress to commission a marble life-sized standing statue of the martyred President to be placed in the national Capitol. It was an astonishing, not to say presumptuous, request from an almost unknown, inexperienced, largely self-taught artist, who—to add to everything else—was female and only nineteen years old. But Ream had friends and admirers in Congress, who introduced a bill authorizing payment of $10,000 for her proposed statue. The measure attracted strong opposition, led by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, considered the leading expert on art in Congress. “You might as well place her on the staff of General Grant, or, putting him aside, place her on horseback in his stead,” Sumner thundered. “She cannot do it. She might as well contract to furnish an epic poem, or the draft of a bankrupt bill.” But another senator called Sumner “a barbarian of the highest order, in attacking this young lady,” and claimed that

this young scion of the West, from the same land from which Lincoln came—a young person who manifests intuitive genius,…is able to copy the works of Nature without having perused the immense tomes and the grand volumes of which the Senator may boast.4

Then, astonishingly, both houses of Congress voted for Ream’s bill, and the young sculptor set up a studio in one of the basement rooms of the Capitol. Once her clay model of the Lincoln statue was completed, she sent it off to Italy to be reproduced in marble and, with the initial congressional payment of $5,000 in hand, followed it. Escorted by her father and mother—it was considered unladylike for a young woman to travel alone—she went to Paris, ostensibly to study works of sculpture but, as Cooper shrewdly notes, “she looked at them as a tourist and not as an artist.” Eventually she ended up in Italy, where she joined what Henry James called “that strange sisterhood of American ‘lady sculptors’ who at one time settled upon the seven hills of Rome in a white, marmorean flock.” Here, “no longer a tourist, but a student,” she worked hard and eagerly sought assistance from other artists. Her studio in Rome became a favorite meeting place for the international art community, and she made friends with people as diverse as Franz Liszt and the Danish critic Georg Brandes.

After her model of Lincoln was transformed into pure white Carrara marble, Ream returned to America and to her greatest triumph. In January 1871 her statue was unveiled in the Capitol to the applause of President Grant, Vice President Schuyler Colfax, members of the cabinet and the Supreme Court, and several dozen senators and representatives. As always, there was much speech-making, culminating in Senator Matthew Carpenter’s announcement:

Of this statue, as a mere work of art, I am no judge. What Praxiteles might have thought of such a work, I neither know nor care; but I am able to say, in the presence of this vast and brilliant assembly (most of whom knew him well), that it is Abraham Lincoln all over.5

Critical opinion of Ream’s work was sharply divided. The New York Tribune called the statue a “discreditable” work by “a young girl whose best known productions were repulsive libels upon the eminent men whose features she undertook to produce,” and the Independent called her statue an “abortion.” Mark Twain joked that this statue of Lincoln “as petrified by a young lady artist for $10,000” showed the President holding out what appeared to be a folded napkin (in fact it was a scroll, representing the Emancipation Proclamation), with an expression seeming to show “that he is finding fault with the washing.” Mrs. Lincoln was more critical, calling Ream “an entire stranger to me and mine,” who secured her commission from Congress “by much forwardness & unladylike persistence.”6 Privately Mary Lincoln is said to have remarked that during the debates over her bill Ream sat in the Senate gallery leaning down to display her ample décolletage for the ogling lawmakers, and, in a rare effort at humor, added that she had won the commission by doing what all sculptors do—displaying her busts.

But most opinion was at least mildly favorable. The New York Times judged the statue the “conscientious, painstaking, loving effort of a young woman, not devoid of artistic perception, and even genius.” The painter J.G. Kellogg published a letter in the Philadelphia Telegraph praising Ream’s work:

The features of Mr. Lincoln are admirably rendered. The head and features are forcibly yet truthfully modeled, the hair boldly managed in flowing mass…; and the expression of sadness, mingled with benevolence, is touchingly portrayed, well conceived and appropriate.

These contradictory evaluations perhaps tell more about the changing artistic standards in late-nineteenth-century America than they do about Ream’s work. She was working at the very end of the neoclassical movement in American sculpture, when artists, generally imitating the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, presented idealized versions of the human form that were lucid, elegant, and dignified. Hiram Powers’s nude Greek Slave (1843), which Henry James described as “so undressed, yet so refined, even so pensive, in sugar-white alabaster,” represented the culmination of this movement. But by the 1860s younger artists rebelled against these conventions, and sculptors like John Q.A. Ward and John Rogers began producing works that were rougher, more human, more natural. Ream, essentially self-taught, was neither a neoclassical nor a naturalistic sculptor; and as a result her work was subject to savage attacks by both camps. Her Lincoln is clearly an idealized figure, but the face and demeanor are recognizably those of the very human President. The verdict of Lorado Taft, the historian of American sculpture, is still sound: Ream’s Lincoln is an “extraordinary work for a child…neither grotesque in expression nor absurd in gesture.” Rather ungraciously Taft added that although Ream’s statue is “quite devoid of strength,” it has “its own melancholy expressiveness.” It stands today in the national Capitol—neither much inferior nor greatly superior to the other figures in Statuary Hall.

After this spectacular beginning the rest of Ream’s life was largely anticlimax. With the long depression beginning in 1873 she found few purchasers for her allegorical figures, like the “Spirit of Carnival” or a dancing “Miriam,” and, perhaps because of the development of highly accurate photography, there was less demand for busts of public figures. Seeking public funding again, she began an intense lobbying campaign for a commission to honor David G. Farragut, who had died in 1870. Eventually Congress appropriated $20,000 for her heroic bronze statue of the Civil War admiral, which still stands in Washington’s Farragut Square.

Ream’s story tells us something of the state of public art in mid-nineteenth-century America. With the Northern victory in the Civil War came a sense of expansiveness. No longer was it tolerable for Washington to be a village with muddy streets where pigs roamed freely. As the capital of a powerful, reinvigorated republic, it ought, some felt, to be the equal of Paris or London. Its public buildings should be graced with statues of its great leaders, and monuments in its public squares should honor its heroes in the recent conflict.

But these sentiments were not clearly articulated, and there was no central body to guide the artistic improvement of the capital, which went on in a sporadic, undirected fashion. Congress directly supervised the erection of all statues and monuments, each of which required a special appropriation. For most of them the legislators did not require a competition but simply chose artists because they were political or personal favorites, not because they had demonstrated accomplishments.

This was the system that Vinnie Ream exploited with great success. Absolutely confident of her talent, she knew that in a competition judges would nearly always pick a man, not a woman. Even if they turned to a female artist they would choose a sculptor like Anne Whitney or Harriet Hosmer, who had received formal training in modeling, drawing, and anatomy. Consequently she had to rely on the political connections she made in Washington and on her personal charm.

She realized that her beauty was a great asset. Over and over again men remarked on her “great brown eyes, the firm eyebrows, the ringleted mass of chestnut brown hair and the fresh mouth.” She was also lively, articulate, and (according to Cooper, who gives no examples) witty. Because of her youth, elderly congressmen expressed a paternal interest in fostering her career. Middle-aged congressmen, many of whom had left wives and family at home while they were in Washington, fell in love with her. So did influential Washington residents like ex-Confederate General Albert Pike, grand commander of the Supreme Grand Council of the Scottish rite Masons, thirty-nine years older than Ream, who adored her, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, who called her “my foolish little pet.”

Most of these relationships were platonic; the men, according to Cooper, were responding to her “real warmth and charm and a genuine interest in their well-being.” But some, he writes, were “certainly sexual.” She cultivated men when they were useful to her career and she broke off those relations with any who ceased to be. As Cooper remarks, she knew she was living in a man’s world, “and she wanted to play the game better than men.”

It is hardly surprising that she had few women friends. She steered clear of the movement for women’s rights. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton tried to enlist her, as the first woman to receive an artistic commission from Congress, in the drive for a woman’s suffrage amendment, Ream told her bluntly:

I am not a woman’s rights advocate, ma’am…no help has any woman given me…. No, Madam! I will be befriended by gentlemen only, for while I never got any justice from a woman, I was never treated meanly by man!

As Ream grew older and her freshness and charm began to fade, she found her position harder to maintain. She lost out in competition after competition—indeed, she never won one—and her few private commissions did not bring in enough money to support her and her expensive studio. In 1878, at the age of thirty, she married Lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie, a member of a well-to-do, socially prominent Washington family. They had one son, Richard, who, at the age of six, was accidentally shot in the head by a playmate with an air rifle. Surgeons could not remove the pellet without risk to his life, so he remained at a six-year-old mental level for the rest of his life. Deeply worried over her son’s health, Ream also found Hoxie increasingly hostile to her artistic work. He had supported her while she was completing the Farragut memorial, but after that he forbade her to do any more sculpture. She loyally obeyed and turned her abundant energy to promoting Washington charities, especially aid to the blind. But used to independence and public prominence, she found it hard to play the part of docile housewife.

At the age of fifty-six she had a serious heart attack, which sympathetic army surgeons attributed to her “suppression of feeling—…wanting to work and not being allowed to do so.” Her husband was so frightened that he relented and allowed her again to take up sculpture. She made several busts and began work on a heroic statue of Sequoya, the Indian leader who invented the Cherokee alphabet, but she died on November 10, 1914, before completing it. She was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

  1. 1

    See www.vinnieream.com.

  2. 2

    Sunshine Press, 1997.

  3. 3

    Letter from Harold Holzer, March 18, 2004.

  4. 4

    The Works of Charles Sumner (Lee and Shepard, 1883), Vol. 10, pp. 543, 554–555.

  5. 5

    Sherwood, Labor of Love, p. 168.

  6. 6

    Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters, edited by Justin G. Turner and Linda Levitt Turner (Knopf, 1972), pp. 416, 418.

  • Email
  • Print