Mallet, Chisel, And Curls

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Vinnie’s punishment likewise was swift in coming. Twelve days after the key Senate vote the House passed a resolution ordering her to vacate her studio. The pretext was that the room was needed as a prison for one Charles Woolley, who was believed to have been bribing senators to vote for acquittal and who had refused to answer some of Butler’s questions during a freewheeling radical investigation following the Senate decision.

Vinnie, however, proved to be considerably more popular than her unfortunate friend Senator Ross. Much of the nation’s press was outraged at the House’s peremptory action, and some editors flew into alliterative paroxysms. The New York Times of May 30 saw the move as a “paltry piece of petty persecution,” while Washington’s Daily National Intelligencer branded it a “wretched piece of petty malevolence and partisan proscription.”

The New York World , however, topped even that. In a front-page article headlined “How Beaten Impeachers Make War on Women,” the World said that if Butler (“this creature too flatteringly called ‘the Beast’”) and his colleagues were to have their way, there would be nothing left of the clay model of Lincoln “save a shattered, shapeless mass, to be moistened after it is too late, by a young girl’s tears.”

Not all of the press was on the sculptor’s side, however. The New York Tribune , a persistent critic, attacked the “kitten-hearted Washington correspondents” who had leaped to Vinnie’s defense: This young woman, who is spoken of as “a helpless girl,” had shown herself abundantly able to look out for her own interest, by the most persistent, unwearied, and successful lobbying in Washington for a whole Winter for the purpose of procuring this commission. She lobbied as only a woman can; and every Senator and Representative in Washington knows, by fearful experience, the terrible force of what has come to be known as “hen power.”

Vinnie was even accused of passing off her former mentor’s work as her own. But a letter found in her personal papers and signed by Clark Mills reads: Whereas it has been reported that Miss Vinnie Ream is using a head of Mr. Lincoln modeled by me, on the statue she is making of Mr. Lincoln and whereas the statement is a base falsehood started doubtlessly for the purpose of injuring her. I herewith declare that it is her own work and modeled by herself in clay, and I deny the statements that I have reported otherwise.

Although Vinnie was required to remove her other works of art from the studio, she prevailed upon the sergeant at arms to allow her to leave the Lincoln model in place. To remove it in its clay state, she pled, would be to destroy long months of labor. Then, desperate to salvage her precious statue, she turned to the one friend who might have the power to help her: Thaddeus Stevens. Dying, and bitterly disappointed over the failure to remove President Johnson from office, Stevens nonetheless interceded on Vinnie’s behalf. On July 20, less than two months after it had ordered her out of the Capitol, the House passed another resolution, permitting her to use the room for another year.

“Congress has again disposed of the weighty case of Miss Vinnie Ream,” commented the New York Times . ”… Justice and mercy are equally beautiful.” Vinnie sent Stevens some flowers and wrote him a warm note the day after the resolution that said, in part: “But for you this result so important to me, could not have been. … May your life, so full of usefulness to your country and humanity be full of happiness—This is the earnest prayer of your faithful little friend. Vinnie Ream.”

Early the following year Vinnie completed the plaster model of the statue and exhibited it in her studio to members of Congress. A leading American art expert, Miner Kilbourne Kellogg, also viewed the model. “The proportions of the figure are very exact,” he reported, “an extraordinary merit which well repays the years of silent and laborious study given by Miss Ream to modelling the entire anatomy of the figure before casting the drapery upon it. … I shall wait with no little impatience to view this statue in pure and translucent marble. …” An enthusiastic Congress, no doubt relieved at this vindication of its confidence in Vinnie, paid her five thousand dollars as specified in the contract.

With the money secured, and with two pet doves and her parents in tow, the indomitable Vinnie set sail for Europe, the carefully wrapped plaster model resting in the hull of the ship. Pursuing her art in Paris and Rome, she also toured some of the Continent’s famous art museums. Everywhere she went, Vinnie proved as popular in Europe as she had been in Washington.