How a teenage Christian College alumna met, charmed and sculpted Lincoln from life.She was just 18, a girl from the Missouri wilderness. The Eastern arts establishment looked down on her, but the talent, drive and charm of Lavinia ("Vinnie") Ream saw her rise from being an apprentice to the toast of the town. Ream was the first woman and the youngest sculptor to win a commission from the government and was perhaps the most prominent American woman sculptor of the 19th century.
She sculpted the only known bust of Lincoln from life and, after his death, the life-size Carrara marble statue that has stood in the U.S. Capitol since 1871.
The Ream renaissance
In February 2009, Ream was honored during the Bicameral Celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s 200th Birthday at the U.S. Capitol, where speakers such as President Barack Obama, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Lincoln historians honored her and Lincoln while standing in front of the statue.
There has been, in fact, a veritable Ream renaissance this decade. In 2007, Maureen Stack Sappéy's award-winning novel Letters from Vinnie was re-released in paperback. A Labor of Love - The Life and Art of Vinnie Ream by Glenn Sherwood, a Ream descendant, garnered enough interest that PBS released the documentary, Vinnie Ream - Lincoln's Young Sculptor to its affiliates in 2002. Both are available on www.vinnieream.com; or see a trailer on YouTube by searching for “Vinnie Ream.”
Born in a log cabin in Madison, Wis., and allegedly taught to paint and draw by Winnebago Indians, Ream came to Christian College in 1857 (either at age 10 or age 14, depending on the source) as a protégé of soon-to-be President J.K. Rogers. It’s said that her fellow students petitioned the faculty to allow Ream, the youngest student there, extra privileges.
Talented beyond her years, Ream wrote poems and the school anthem and studied painting with art professor William Alexander before moving with her family to Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. That’s where another Missouri connection, Rep. James Rollins, made a fateful introduction to sculptor Clark Mills.
"I must be ready for it when it comes"
In 1863, Missouri Congressman Rollins took her along to visit sculptor Clark Mills. Ream watched Mills then blurted out, “I can do that!” Mills gave her some clay, which she molded into a medallion of an Indian chief’s head. An impressed Mills asked her to be his apprentice.
Ream was deceptively small. Contemporary accounts put her height at just under or at five feet, her weight at just 90 pounds. She wore her hair in the long, ornate rings so popular with Victorian Americans, and was described as being bright eyed and full of energy. That she was ambitious there is little doubt; but Victorian society frowned on ambitious women, so Ream cultivated a sweet and demure manner.
19th century Danish critic Georg Brandes was not fooled. "She had a mind of many colors," he wrote, "and there was the very devil of a rush and Forward! March! about her, always in a hurry."
Ream also worked for the United States Postal Service from 1862 to 1866 and gave generously of her free time. Like many young women during the Civil War, she wrote letters for wounded soldiers in hospitals and sang in hospital concerts and for local churches. She wrote her mother, “I feel that I am to have some special work in the world. I don’t know what it is, but I must be ready for it when it comes."
"That is Abraham Lincoln all over"
Mills kept her busy making medallions and busts of congressmen and other public figures. Her client list reads like a who's who of 19th century America: generals Grant, McClellan and Frémont, Horace Greeley and the composer Liszt, among others.
In late 1864 a posse of them begged President Lincoln to let her model him for a bust. Unwilling at first, Lincoln changed his mind when he learned that Ream shared his humble background (Missouri was then largely wilderness). A tiny, teenage girl had sweet-talked the busiest man in America into sitting still for half an hour a day for five months. Ream later recalled that she was "under the spell of his kind eyes and genial presence."
She was crushed when Lincoln was assassinated in April 1865. But Congress voted to commission the now-18-year-old Ream to sculpt a full-size statue of the martyred president -- the first woman and youngest sculptor to ever get a commission from the federal government.
To get the correct measurements for the statue, Ream was given the clothing Lincoln wore the night he was shot. If this disturbed her, she left no record; Victorian women were tough. She chose Cararra marble, a marble found in Italy only and a favorite of Michelangelo; she reasoned that only pure marble was worthy of the man. Ream and her parents traveled to Italy to choose the purest stone, living in Rome for two years while Ream turned a plaster model into a finished marble figure.
In 1871 the finished statue was unveiled in the Capitol. You can still see it today: The president's head is bent slightly forward and his eyes are fixed on the viewer as he extends the Emancipation Proclamation with his right hand. (The New York Times reported that the 1871 crowd lingered for some time in the rotunda, examining the statue, and "A number of colored persons availed themselves of the same opportunity.")
The New York Times raved that Ream's statue was "genius, to present Mr. LINCOLN as he actually appeared, and in the dress he habitually wore. He might have looked better clad in the Greek chalmys or the Roman toga. Probably the old Continental military uniform, the next favorite costume of the sculptor, would not have become him more. In either dress he would not have been Mr. LINCOLN. So if Miss REAM has not evoked from the marble a figure of striking beauty, she has fashioned truthfully the President … The marble is a beautiful piece from Carrarra, and is almost entirely colorless."
Said Sen. Matthew Carpenter of Wisconsin, who knew and worked with the man: "That is Abraham Lincoln all over."
Suddenly famous, she was commissioned to sculpt the Admiral David Farragut monument in Farragut Square, Washington, D.C., for a whopping $20,000, double what she was paid for the Lincoln statue. Ream melted down the bronze from the propeller of one of Farragut’s ships for the statue. It too is still there today, looking down sternly at the pell-mell of DC traffic.
In 1878, Ream married Richard L. Hoxie, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. President Ulysses S. Grant, General William T. Sherman, and much of the Senate attended the wedding. Ream and Hoxie were to have one son, Richard. She became a star in Washington society, leaving Washington a number of times to accompany her husband to postings. He retired from the Army in 1908 as a brigadier general.
She began sculpting again. One of her final commissions was a full-size statue of Sequoyah, the Cherokee chief and inventor of the Cherokee alphabet. His statue was the first of a Native American to be placed in the Statuary Hall at the Capitol Building.
Ream died in 1914 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
She is the first in a long line of accomplished artists whose talents have been nourished and encouraged at what is now Columbia College. The college taught art before even Ream's time, but received a jolt when Sid Larson joined the staff in 1951. He would teach for 50 years and inspire hundreds of artists.
There is one more distinction to be added to her list of accomplishments. She is, to our knowledge, the only alumna to have a town named after her: Vinita, Okla.