Note from Pamela: When Malena, with whom I have the pleasure of exploring all subjects related to the humanities, and I were delving into the years after the American Civil War, we read a marvelous picture book about a young girl who met President Abraham Lincoln and ended up sculpting his bust. Her name was Vinnie Ream. Her story led Malena to investigate statues of President Lincoln. This post is the third and final post of three Lincoln statues Malena chose to research.
Vinnie Ream’s Lincoln Statue by Malena Ani
Vinnie Ream was born on September 25, 1847 near Madison, Wisconsin. Her mother was Lavinia Ream and her father was Robert Ream. Vinnie had an older brother and sister. When Vinnie was a baby, the Reams ran an inn in their house. At the time, her father was also Register of Deeds. In 1848, he was elected Chief Clerk in the House of Representatives. After realizing that he had no future in politics, Robert decided to become a surveyor. He drew some of the first maps of Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri. By then the Ream family had settled in Kansas.
Vinnie and her sister, Mary, were lucky. Unlike most girls at that time, they got to go to school. Vinnie and Mary were sent to St. Joseph Female Academy in St. Joseph, Missouri. Then they transferred to Christian College in Columbia, Missouri. Before 1861, the people of Kansas weren’t sure if they were on the Confederate or Union side; however, in 1861 Robert was fired from his job because he was pro-Union. Out of work, he moved his family to Arkansas just as the war began. While Vinnie’s older brother stayed in Arkansas, the rest of the family moved to Washington D.C. because Vinnie’s father got a job in the War Department.
Washington D.C. was expensive so Vinnie and Mary had to get jobs to help support the family. Their father reconnected with an old friend, James Rollins, who had supported Vinnie and Mary’s school in Missouri. He was now a United States Congressman. James Rollins got both sisters jobs at the Postal Service.
Vinnie was 15 by now, barely five feet tall with curly brown hair. She was smart, independent, and beautiful. Vinnie loved art, singing, and writing. She sang at church and to wounded soldiers at the hospital. The first seven months of the war were fun and even glamorous, but then things got violent. Arkansas withdrew from the Union May 6, 1861. Robert, Vinnie’s brother, joined the Confederacy. With her father on the Union side and her brother on the Confederate side, Vinnie wasn’t sure which side she was on.
Vinnie started working as a clerk in James Rollins’ office. She learned all about lobbying and how a bill is passed. In 1863, James Rollins invited Vinnie to come with him to visit the studio of Clark Mills where he was sitting for a bust. Clark Mills was the most respected sculptor at the time. As Vinnie observed Mills’ sculptures, she blurted out ‘’I can do that’’! Mills gave Vinnie some clay and told her to copy the head of an Indian chief. The two men were astounded by the work she did, and Clark Mills asked Vinnie to be his student assistant.
One day, while walking down Pennsylvania Avenue to work in 1864, Vinnie Ream looked up and saw President Lincoln with his cavalry escort. At that moment, she decided she wanted to sculpt him. Vinnie had learned a skill from her father, watching him use his connections to get jobs. She asked three politicians she knew to ask the President if he would sit for her. They all told her that the President had said he did not want to sit for her. But when they told him Vinnie was a poor girl, he agreed. Vinnie said “He had been painted and modeled before, but when he learned that I was poor, he granted me the sittings for no other purpose than that I was a poor girl. Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world, I am sure that he would have refused at that time.’’ Soon, Vinnie was having half-hour sessions with the President on the days he was in the White House.
Vinnie’s Lincoln bust was making her popular. Vinnie began getting commission offers from many politicians after they heard she was doing Lincoln’s bust. She now had enough money to quit her job at the Postal Service.
The bust was almost finished when the President went to Ford’s theater to see a play on Friday, April 14. At midnight, Vinnie heard the news that the President had been assassinated.
Congress offered a $10,000 commission for a statue of President Lincoln. Vinnie decided to apply for the commission. James Rollins wrote a petition that highlighted her good character. Vinnie asked John Rice, Chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, to sign her petition. She also asked him to authorize her use of a studio in the Capitol building. He said he would reserve studio A in the Capitol for her to use.
The House passed Vinnie’s bill. But she was not awarded the commission yet. The Senate still had to approve it. Vinnie fought for her statue. There were a few stuck-up congressmen who didn’t think a girl could sculpt a statue, but she won 23 to 9. She had just become the youngest person and first woman to be commissioned a statue from the United States government.
Vinnie was famous. People visited her at her studio in the Capitol to watch her as she worked on the model of the statue. In the making of her Lincoln, Vinnie said, ‘’I think that history is particularly correct in writing Lincoln down as the man of sorrow. The one great, lasting, all-dominating impression that I have always carried of Lincoln has been that of unfathomable sorrow, and it was this that I tried to put into my statue.’’
Now it was time to have the model carved in Cararra marble. Vinnie ventured all the way to Rome to oversee the carving of her model. Skilled Italian stone carvers carved Vinnie’s Lincoln statue. They used pointing machines to copy her model into the marble. (The pointing machine measures points on the model and transfers them to the marble.) After six busy months, the statue was done and Vinnie was on her way back home her statue. Vinnie’s ‘’Abraham Lincoln’’ was unveiled on January 25, 1871 in the U.S Capitol Rotunda. Vinnie was just 23 years old.
Cooper, E. (2004). Vinnie Ream: An American sculptor. Chicago, Ill.: Academy Chicago.
Vinnie Ream | Architect of the Capitol | United States Capitol, http://www.aoc.gov/capitol-hill/artists/vinnie-ream
Vinnie Ream home page: http://vinnieream.com/
European Journal of American Studies, https://ejas.revues.org/9139
Vinnie Ream | American sculptor, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Vinnie-Ream