Mallet, Chisel, And Curls


On April 14, 1865, Vinnie spent her usual half hour with Mr. Lincoln, working on the nearly complete model. The Union cause finally had gone well, and just five days earlier, after four bloody years of war, Lee had surrendered to Grant at Appomattox Courthouse to end the hostilities. No one could deny that the President needed diversion, and so it was on this evening that he had gone to Ford’s Theatre to see Our American Cousin . Vinnie was at the family home near Capitol Hill when the news came that shook the nation. Overwhelmed with sorrow at the assassination of her friend and hero, she was prostrated for days.

The shock to the stunned and still divided nation, which only with time would grasp fully the enormity of its loss, gradually gave way to a desire to memorialize properly America’s martyred leader. One way, Congress decided, would be to commission a full-size statue of Mr. Lincoln to be placed in the Rotunda of the Capitol.

Although a competition was held for the coveted award, Vinnie had the inside track. During five years of Washington life she had learned her political lessons well, and four months before the commission was granted in August of 1866, a petition cogently attesting her competence was urged on prominent men in government.

In part, the “To Whom It May Concern” document read that the undersigned, being personally acquainted with Miss Vinnie. Ream, take great pleasure in endorsing her claims upon public patronage, no less as a most worthy and accomplished young lady, than as possessing rare genius in the beautiful art of sculpture. … We feel every confidence that she will excel in her profession, and, with age and experience, rank her name with those who have already won high places in America’s temple of art.

The first two signatures on the petition were those of President Andrew Johnson and General Ulysses S. Grant. The name of Edmund Ross headed a list of thirty-one senators, and that of Thaddeus Stevens a hundred and ten members of the House.

The contract called for five thousand dollars to be paid Vinnie upon completion of the plaster model and five thousand dollars upon completion and acceptance of the finished marble statue. It was the first time that Congress had commissioned a woman to execute sculpture for the government. For good measure, the somewhat infatuated Congress threw in a studio in the Capitol, rent-free, which soon became a favorite Capitol Hill attraction for the curious who had heard romantic tales of the wonder girl from the West, still not twenty years old.

Vinnie understandably drew more than her share of jealous detractors, who were not to be silenced by her fait accompli . For example, a newspaper columnist, Mrs. Jane Grey Swisshelm, vented her irritation in an article describing how Vinnie “carries the day” with members of Congress: Miss .… Ream … is a young girl of about twenty who has been studying her art for a few months, never made a statue, has some plaster busts on exhibition, including her own, minus clothing to the waist, has a pretty face, long dark curls and plenty of them. … [She] sees members at their lodgings or in the reception room at the Capitol, urges her claims fluently and confidently, sits in the galleries in a conspicuous position and in her most bewitching dress, while those claims are being discussed on the floor, and nods and smiles as a member rises. …

An editor had the last word, however, when he printed her column under the headline “A Homely Woman’s Opinion of a Pretty One.”

Later less biassed critics, while acknowledging Vinnie’s native talent, would fault Congress for awarding the important commission to one so unschooled. And the more thoughtful among Vinnie’s contemporary admirers worried over the dangers of the flattery that was being heaped upon her. “While it might, in some degree, cheer and encourage,” wrote a correspondent in the Overland Monthly of August, 1871, “it was calculated to stifle study and effort, under the impression that there was little more to learn, and to leave the girl to be satisfied with half-way excellence.” Vinnie brushed off this concern with an answer that belied her age: “These people know nothing whatever of art. I had rather have the opinions of one even merciless judge than the unmeaning, but well-meant, praise of all of them.”

Vinnie set to work on the clay model, her goal now in sight. The sculptor’s pleasant studio, located adjacent to the crypt of the Capitol, directly below the Rotunda, was convenient to the family home, and her life was both uncomplicated and fulfilling.

While Vinnie was absorbed in the important task at hand over the next two years, the country outside her studio, and the Senate and House above it, debated momentous issues that the nation vainly hoped had been resolved at Appomattox. Abraham Lincoln’s untimely death had removed from the scene the one man who might have commanded enough respect to heal the wounds still festering between North and South and to somehow appease Northerners thirsting to further suppress and control the eleven states of the Confederacy rather than reclaim them.