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. 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, 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 And now we have Edward S. Cooper’s briefer, more sharply focused biography, which skillfully exploits the unpublished papers, journals, and scrapbooks of Vinnie Ream in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress.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 …

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