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Mallet, Chisel, And Curls
Vinnie Ream sculptured Lincoln while she was still a teen-ager
February 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 2
President Lincoln had been dead more than three years in May of 1868, and the model of his statue still rested unfinished in young Vinnie Ream’s Capitol studio. Now its very completion was threatened by a band of bitter congressmen who had failed to eject Mr. Lincoln’s successor from the White House and, in their frustration, would try to turn Vinnie’s ambition to ashes as well.
Vinnie Ream had come to Washington at the age of fourteen when her father, in 1861, found a job with the War Department’s cartography section. It was an exciting place for a young girl, with soldiers constantly marching through the streets and ambulance vans from the nearby fighting front moving to army hospitals in the city. In the midst of the turmoil one recurring scene made an indelible impression on Vinnie. It was when the carriage bearing the tall, gaunt Mr. Lincoln would pass by, surrounded by a score of cavalrymen in colorful uniforms. Her fascination turned to a resolve to do a bust of the President. Soon the resolve became an obsession.
Between the pretty wisp of a girl—she weighed less than ninety pounds and was only about five feet tall—and her ambition there was a formidable array of obstacles. She was a mere youngster, reared in the prairie wilderness of Wisconsin, Kansas, and Missouri and unacquainted with the peculiar formal ways of official Washington. Although she had shown promise as an artist during a year’s study at Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, she was still a beginner. And, in any event, Vinnie Ream was rather naive to believe that a wartime President had the time and patience for such a project.
These negative contemplations, however, were foreign to the nature of the spirited Miss Ream, who was not altogether unequipped for the challenge ahead. She had been endowed with a profusion of long, dark curls and bright, intelligent brown eyes. She also was gifted with a vivacious personality, which, combined with a certain amount of guile, sometimes opened doors in Washington that were closed to others.
The early months in the capital city were difficult ones financially for Robert Ream, and family members pitched in to help make ends meet. Vinnie’s sister got a job in the land office; the family took in a former neighbor who was now a United States senator from Kansas, Edmund G. Ross, as a boarder; and Vinnie became a clerk at the post office.
It was while thus employed that Vinnie one day visited the studio of a noted American sculptor, Clark Mills. After watching Mills fashion a model, Vinnie, who had never tried sculpturing but was not one to underestimate her own ability, remarked to an escort: “I can do that myself.” Overhearing the remark, Mills good-naturedly handed the girl a bucket of clay and challenged her to make good on her boast. Several weeks later the clay was returned to the studio, shaped convincingly into the head of an Indian. The result delighted Mills, who invited Vinnie to become his pupil-helper.
Under Mills’s tutelage Vinnie’s natural talent as a sculptor flowered swiftly into accomplishment, and she was soon able to leave the post office and devote her full energies to her art. Among the first famous Washingtonians who sat for a portrait bust by Vinnie was grim-faced Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania. Stevens, the most powerful man in the House of Representatives, would later be chief architect of the scheme to impeach and destroy Andrew Johnson and—it would be charged- to destroy the constitutional role of the Executive as a coequal branch of the federal government.
True to Mills’influence, Vinnie’s finished bust of Stevens was realistically accurate and did not soften the feared congressman’s countenance. But Stevens expressed satisfaction with the result and remained from then on a steadfast friend to the young sculptor.
After Vinnie had worked with Mills for about a year, a sympathetic congressman approached President Lincoln to request permission for her to go to the White House for sittings while the great man worked at his desk. “Lincoln had been painted and modeled before,” she would relate later, “and when friends of mine first asked him to sit for me he dismissed them wearily until he was told that I was but an ambitious girl, poor and obscure. … Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am sure that I would have been refused.”
During the next five months, while war raged in the country, the little sculptor worked hard over her clay model of the President for a half hour each day. “I was the merest slip of a child … and the contrast between the rawboned man and me was indeed great,” she remembered. “I sat demurely in my corner and begged Mr. Lincoln not to allow me to disturb him. … He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little. His favorite son, Willie, had but just died, and this had been the greatest personal sorrow in a life that was mostly sorrowful. I made him think of Willie. He often said so and as often wept.” Vinnie said she tried to capture in her model her strongest impression of Lincoln as a man “of unfathomable sorrow.”