Ream, Vinnie (1847–1914)
Ream, Vinnie (1847–1914)
American sculptor, known as "the girl who sculpted Lincoln," who was the first female sculptor commissioned by the U.S. government. Name variations: Vinnie Ream Hoxie. Born Vinnie Ream on September 25, 1847, in Madison, Territory of Wisconsin; died in Washington, D.C., on November 21, 1914, of uremic poisoning; buried in Arlington National Cemetery; daughter of Robert Lee Ream (a surveyor, recorder of deeds, and employee of the U.S. Treasury, who died November 21, 1885) and Lavinia (McDonald) Ream (died April 17, 1893); attended public schools and Christian College Academy, Columbia, Missouri, 1857–58; studied sculpture privately with Clark Mills in Washington, D.C., 1863; studied art abroad, 1869–71; married Lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie of the Army Engineers (later brigidier general U.S. Army), on May 28, 1878; children: one son, Richard Ream Hoxie (b. 1883).
Spent childhood in Wisconsin, Missouri and Arkansas; during Civil War (1861–65), moved with family to Washington, D.C.; at age 15, became a postal clerk-copyist and church vocalist (1862); allowed to sketch President Abraham Lincoln at the White House; after his assassination (April 14, 1865), won a Congressional competition for the Lincoln statue for the Capitol—the first woman to sculpt for the U.S. government (August 30, 1866); became embroiled in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson; signed a $20,000 contract for bronze statue of Admiral Farragut (January 28, 1875); after marrying into a wealthy family, gave up sculpting, except as a hobby, to become a Washington society hostess; after a lapse of 18 years, returned to professional sculpting (1906); while working on a statue of Civil War governor Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, was stricken ill at her summer home in Iowa City; returned by private train to Washington for treatment, where she died.
Bust of Lincoln (Cornell University, 1865); Thaddeus Stevens (1865); The Morning Glory (1865); Sappho, Typifying the Muse of Poetry (replica on her grave, 1865–70); Lincoln (Rotunda, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C., 1865–69); Ideal Bust (1868); Franz Liszt (1869); Giacomo Cardinal Antonelli (1870); Gustave Doré (1870); Albert Pike (1872); Chief Justice Morrison R. Waite (1877); Admiral Farragut (Farragut Square, Washington, D.C., 1873–80); Miriam (shown 1876 Exposition); America (1866–68); The West (1866–68); The Spirit of Carnaval (shown 1876 Exposition); Governor Samuel Kirkwood (1906) and Sequoyah (1914, both in Statuary Hall, U.S. Capitol, Washington, D.C.).
"Both President Lincoln and the Artist were of humble origin; both were born and brought up in the West, and, both, under God, are architects of their own fortune," said Senator Lyman Trumbull in January 1871, as he addressed the distinguished crowd in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. He then unveiled Vinnie Ream's statue of Abraham Lincoln, shown holding a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation. Four and a half years earlier, in the Senate debate over awarding the then 17-year-old girl this $10,000 commission, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner had been convinced she couldn't do it, while Jacob Howard of Vermont predicted, "Having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work. I would as soon think of a lady writing the Iliad of Homer; I should as soon think of placing her at the head of an army … for the conduct of a great campaign." Despite the naysayers and the fact that she had never before executed a statue in marble, Ream succeeded in creating a better likeness of the martyred Lincoln than any of her competitors. Immediately, newspapers throughout the country published stories about her and "the Lincoln," forever transforming the image of this tiny, coquettish woman with long black curls into "the girl who sculpted Lincoln" and "the wonder girl from the West." Her colorful background, talent and pioneering spirit, her lobbying ability in Washington, as well as the political controversies surrounding her career, created such a mythical figure that it is hard to distinguish fact from fiction.
Vinnie Ream was a child of the frontier. She was born in 1847 in a log cabin in what would later become Madison, Wisconsin, where the Ream family resided among the Winnebago Indians. Because she was musically talented and had a lovely singing voice as a child, her father Robert Ream, a surveyor and mapmaker for the territory, bought her a guitar from a traveling salesman. After brief instruction, she taught herself and family friends how to play the instrument. She also learned piano without instruction and composed songs. While her mother Lavinia Ream initially expected her to become a musician, Vinnie could also draw expertly and paint. By the time she and her older sister Mary Ream attended Christian College Academy in Missouri (1857–58), ten-year-old Vinnie wanted to become a sculptor, though she had no idea how that might be accomplished. She knew her family was not wealthy enough to send her to Europe, which was how the famous American sculptors had learned. Still, Vinnie was recognized as the best artist at the academy, and received encouragement from an important visitor, Major James S. Rollins, who later became a U.S. congressional representative. Ream's winning personality also made her a favorite of the academy president who, recognizing her gift, gave her a clipping from the works of Robert Hall that inspired her in later life. Wrote Hall: "No man can ever become eminent in anything, unless he work at it with an earnestness bordering on enthusiasm."
After leaving the academy, the Ream girls joined their parents, who had moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, across the Arkansas River from Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) which was then inhabited by the five Indian "Nations," who had moved there from the Southeast in the 1820s. Even while living in Missouri, Vinnie had composed songs about Indian lore, which were later published; however, at Fort Smith, the 13year-old created enduring friendships with two notable, educated Cherokees. The first was John Rollin Ridge (1827–1867), a journalist who wrote the poem "I Love Thee" for which Ream wrote the music before it was published in English and Cherokee in 1880. The other was Ridge's cousin, Elias Cornelius Boudinot (1835–1890), who later became an Arkansas lawyer, chair of the Democratic state central committee, and would in 1871 name a new Oklahoma settlement "Vinita," after his dear "little Vin." Moreover, after the Civil War, Ream's brother Bob would marry Anna Guy , a Choctaw and sister of Governor William Guy of the Chickasaw Nation. Thus, the Reams were Westerners with strong ties with Native Americans before they moved East.
In 1862, when Vinnie was 15, the Ream family moved once again, this time from the Arkansas frontier to Washington, D.C. Because Robert Ream's health was failing, he worked only part-time as an army mapmaker. The cost of living was high in the bustling Union capital during the Civil War. Lavinia Ream took in boarders to supplement the family income, while Vinnie and her sister also ambitiously went to work. (To the family's dismay, their brother Bob ran away to join the Confederate forces, as did their friend Boudinot.) Vinnie became a postal clerk at a salary of $50 a month, and took a second paid position as the first female vocalist in a Washington church, at $300 a year. In her spare time, she was taught the harp by Catholic nuns, which contributed to her angelic public image. Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas, an old family friend, boarded with the Reams at their rented house on Capitol Hill within view of the unfinished dome of the Capitol.
Vinnie loved to roam the marble Capitol building, examining the statuary. One day, she met Congressman James S. Rollins, who had admired her drawings at Christian College. Finding Ream knowledgeable about governmental sculpture, and knowing of her desire to become a sculptor, Rollins introduced her to his friend Clark Mills (1810–1883), the foremost sculptor in America, whose studio was in the basement of the Capitol. Mills took the teenager seriously and gave her a lump of clay to test her aptitude for modeling. The result, a bust of a Native American, pleased Mills enough to agree to take Ream on as a part-time apprentice after she turned 16.
While she divided her working hours between the post office and studying with Mills, Ream became obsessed with the idea of modeling a portrait bust of President Abraham Lincoln, of whom she had had fleeting glances several times since she had arrived in Washington. Ream, who was 17 by then, appealed to her friend Rollins to help her arrange to sketch the president while he worked at his desk in the executive mansion. According to her diary, she was
allowed to have half-hour sittings with Lincoln for five months: "I was a mere slip of a child, weighing less than ninety pounds and the contrast between the rawboned man and me was indeed great." In her drawings and clay bust, she depicted Lincoln as she remembered him: "a man of unfathomable sorrow." On Good Friday, 1865, Ream had her regular session with Lincoln; the clay bust she was making of him was almost finished. That evening, when Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theater by John Wilkes Booth, Ream became the last person to have sculpted him from life. When Lincoln died the following day, Vice President Andrew Johnson became president of the United States.
While Lincoln was alive, he was more than just the commander-in-chief of the Union; he also was a controversial political figure who represented Western, partisan interests against New England manufacturing interests; but dead, he was an American martyr. Congress rallied to preserve his memory and responded with a competition for the creation of a life-size marble statue for the Rotunda under the new dome of the Capitol. Although Congress had never awarded an art commission to a woman, Vinnie Ream and Harriet Hosmer , a Massachusetts sculptor, both applied; but Ream used her numerous political connections in Washington to lobby successfully for the $10,000 commission. A press controversy erupted in which Ream was ridiculed for that lobbying by Jane Grey Swisshelm , the most powerful woman columnist and a friend of Hosmer, and for using her pretty face to win the commission over more experienced artists. But journalists came to her rescue. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, commissioned "Little Vin," as he called her, to sculpt a bust of himself. One writer decided Ream resembled the French Romantic novelist Germaine de Staël , another compared her to Rosa Bonheur , despite the fact that Bonheur dressed in knickerbocker suits while Ream preferred to sculpt in a long skirt, smock, large apron and old school shoes with rubber toes.
She had a mind of many colours. And there was the very devil of a rush and Forward! March! about her, always in a hurry.
While she worked on the Lincoln model, Ream's studio in the basement of the old part of the Capitol became a Washington tourist attraction. The Louisville Courier reported: "She darts in and out of the studios … illuminating them like a stray sunbeam, and looking like one of her own beautiful statues into which some modern Pygmalion has breathed the breath of life." Her pet doves flew around the studio and perched on her shoulders while she worked. Gentlemen visited the studio, bringing bouquets of flowers and proposals of marriage. Even Brigham Young, the polygamous Mormon leader, was said to have wanted her to become one of his wives. Women's rights advocate Elizabeth Cady Stanton also visited Ream's studio with her "Plan to Move on the Works of Man, the Monster"; perhaps not surprisingly, Ream refused to endorse it, because she believed some women reacted with jealousy while some men helped her advance.
But a political crisis threatened to interrupt Ream's work on the model—the impeachment of Andrew Johnson. Because she knew so many congressional representatives and senators, to the point of serving them tea in her studio, certain radical politicians tried to intimidate her into lobbying for impeachment. In the end, the proceedings failed by only one vote—that of Senator Ross, who remained loyal to Johnson. Ross was still boarding with the Reams. For awhile, the angry losers had Ream's studio closed in retaliation, but her many friends in Congress rescued her.
Once the clay and plaster models of "the Lincoln" were completed and approved by Congress in 1869, she received a $5,000 partial payment. So in June 1869, Vinnie Ream, her parents and a cage with the two white doves, with the plaster model safely in the hold of the ship, crossed the Atlantic to France on their way to Italy, where the marble statue would actually be made. Ream studied with Léon J.F. Bonnât in Paris and Luigi Majoli in Rome. She traveled to Carrara to select the block of finest marble, before the professional stonecutter proceeded to cut the statue using thousands of measuring points taken from her plaster model, leaving only (as was customary) one-eighth of an inch of surface for the artist to finish off herself. Ream dazzled the Europeans and members of the American art colonies, receiving many more marriage proposals. She sculpted Gustave Doré, made friends with Danish poet Georg Brandes, and was painted by George Healy in Italian peasant costume. Before the Ream family returned to Washington, the marble Lincoln statue was previewed in Rome and London and highly acclaimed. Finally, they arrived back home, and, much to Vinnie's relief, Congress approved the completed statue and disbursed her second $5,000, which covered her European expenses for a year and a half. The official unveiling of her statue of a sorrowful-looking, downcast Lincoln, wearing a suit covered by a judicial cape and holding the Emancipation Proclamation, was one of the two highlights of her career.
In 1875, Ream won a second government contract—for a colossal bronze statue of Admiral David Farragut. This time, however, she was selected by a congressionally appointed committee, which included the admiral's widow Virginia L. Farragut , to receive the contract, because Congress could not agree upon who should get the $20,000 commission. The statue was designed to be placed in the center of Farragut Square in the heart of Washington, and was cast from the propeller of his Civil War flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford.
Ever since she had won fame and fortune for the Lincoln statue, Ream was at the center of Washington social life in her new home on Pennsylvania Avenue. She kept busy by sculpting portrait busts and medallions of several famous generals. Her friendship with Boudinot and other Cherokee friends continued, while she added explorer Albert Pike and General George Custer to her coterie. Before the Farragut model was completed, Virginia Farragut introduced Ream to handsome First Lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie, of the Engineer Corps of the U.S. Army, who would retire as a general in 1908. When Ream married Hoxie, in an elaborate Washington ceremony on May 28, 1878, Boudinot refused to attend; many years later, he reputedly whispered her name as he died.
Once Vinnie Ream (now Mrs. Richard Hoxie) finished the Farragut contract, her husband felt the same as did most wealthy men of that era: he did not want his wife working for money. Consequently, sculpting turned into more of a hobby than a livelihood for Ream. She became an outstanding Washington hostess, known for entertaining their many friends by playing her harp and for doing volunteer work with art for the blind. Her "perfect marriage" was marred when her only son Richie, who was born in 1883, became an invalid after he was accidentally shot in the head while he and another child were playing with guns. Later in life, her own vitality was hindered by a chronic kidney ailment. Despite the fact that her husband wished to provide Ream's financial support, he nevertheless wanted to make her happy. As she aged and found it more difficult to climb ladders while sculpting, he used his engineering skill to design for her private studio a special chair on a hoist to lift her within easy reach of her work.
To escape the Washington summers, the Hoxies traveled to the Hoxie family homestead in Iowa City, which Richard had renamed "Vinita" for her. Because of their Iowa connections, in 1906 she was commissioned by the State of Iowa to sculpt a statue of Governor Samuel Kirkwood, as a gift to the U.S. Capitol, for Statuary Hall. The statue was completed in 1913.
Her final noteworthy commission, and the third eventually to stand in Statuary Hall, was requested by the State of Oklahoma—a statue of Sequoyah, the chief who had developed the Cherokee alphabet. Unfortunately, Ream could
not complete the statue before she was overtaken by illness, though she arranged to have wellknown sculptor Georg Zolnay complete it according to her design. At the unveiling ceremony, which would occur in 1917, after her death, Senator Robert L. Owen of Oklahoma noted Ream's lifelong friendships with Oklahomans and love for the Cherokee people, in addition to her "magnificent ability as a sculptor of the first rank."
In the early fall of 1914, when Ream fell seriously ill, collapsing in the yard of their summer home in Iowa City, her husband chartered a train to send her back to Washington for treatment. She died of uremic poisoning on November 14, 1914, at age 67, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery dressed in her white wedding gown and holding her bridal fan.
Vinnie Ream's career paralleled the rise of Western interests on the American political scene. As a teenaged artist, she pioneered in the undeveloped field of American sculpture, in which she did creditable work and progressed with experience. Her musical and artistic talent, combined with good looks, social grace and industriousness, made her one of the most admired women of her time; yet she always retained a certain homespun quality. In a Canadian speech in June 1909, she reflected on her success:
I am a sculptor, and my life has been a happy one—so happy that I have feared always that I was "eating my white bread" and that some terrible storm was surely to break over me, for it seemed as if Heaven could not give me so much. My work has never been labor, but an ecstatic delight to my soul. I have worked in my studio not envying kings in their splendor; my mind to me was my kingdom, and my work more than diamonds and rubies.
Brandes, Georg. Reminiscences of My Childhood and Youth. London: William Heinemann, 1906.
Campbell, O.B. The Story of Vinnie Ream. Vinita, OK: Eastern Trails Historical Society.
Fairman, Charles Edwin. Art and Artists of the Capital of the United States of America. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1927.
Hall, Gordon Langley. Vinnie Ream: The Story of the Girl Who Sculpted Lincoln. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963.
Hoxie, Richard Leveridge. Vinnie Ream; Printed for private distribution only and to preserve a few souvenirs of artistic life from 1865 to 1878. Washington, DC, 1915.
James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.
Prioli, Carmine A. "'Wonder Girl from the West': Vinnie Ream and the Congressional Statue of Abraham Lincoln," in Journal of American Culture. Vol. 12, no. 4. Winter 1989, pp. 1–20.
Stathis, Stephen W., and Lee Roderick. "Mallet, Chisel, and Curls," in American Heritage. Vol. 27, no. 2. February 1976, pp. 45–47, 94–96.
Tufts, Eleanor. American Women Artists, 1830–1930. Washington, DC: National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1987.
Becker, Carolyn Berry. "Vinnie Ream Portrait of a Young Sculptor," in The Feminist Art Journal. Vol. 5, no. 3, 1976, pp. 29–31.
Gerdts, William H. The White Marmorean Flock. Poughkeepsie, NY: Vassar College Art Gallery, 1972.
Griffin, Maude E. "Vinnie Ream, Portrait of a Sculptor," in Missouri Historical Review. Vol. 56, no. 3. April 1962, pp. 230–243.
Heller, Nancy. Women Artists. NY: Abbeville, 1987.
Hubbard, Freeman H. Vinnie Ream and Mr. Lincoln. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1949.
Lemp, Joan A. "Vinnie Ream and Abraham Lincoln," in Women's Art Journal. Vol. 6, no. 2. Fall 1985–Winter 1986, pp. 24–29.
Lomask, Milton. Andrew Johnson: President on Trial. NY: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1960.
Sandburg, Carl. Abraham Lincoln: The War Years. NY: Harcourt, Brace, 1939.
Thorp, Margaret Farrand. The Literary Sculptors. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1965.
Christian College, Columbia, Missouri, owns various items pertaining to Vinnie Ream, as well as her painting of Martha Washington .
Hoxie Family Papers (12 manuscript boxes and one large portfolio), Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. (these contain her diaries, scrapbooks, photographs of her sculpture and newspaper clippings).
Ten folders of poems, clippings, etc., concerning alumna Ream have been deposited in the Western Historical Manuscripts Collection, University of Missouri Library.
June K. Burton , freelance writer and Associate Professor Emeritus, University of Akron, Akron, Ohio