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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.”
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.
Lincoln’s successor, Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, was a man of principle, dedicated to carrying out Lincoln’s policy of “malice toward none … charity for all.” But Johnson proved himself woefully inept and uncompromising in his relations with Congress. The elections of 1866 gave Republicans solid majorities in each house, and they proceeded to override his frequent legislative vetoes and to implement their own harsh version of Reconstruction. They also contrived to impeach Johnson—and Vinnie Ream was to play a surprising role in this famous event.
The radical wing of the Republican Party, brilliantly but fanatically led by Thaddeus Stevens—described by one writer as having the emaciated appearance of “a white old rock drying in the sun”—plotted the impeachment strategy. Early in 1867 Congress enacted over Johnson’s veto the Tenure-of-Office Act. The measure prevented the President from dismissing without Senate approval any new official whose appointment required confirmation by that body.
Convinced that the act was clearly unconstitutional, the President put it to a test by summarily firing Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and appointing General Grant in his place. Stanton barricaded himself in his office at the War Department while the wrath of Republican opinion came down on the President like a storm.
The radicals on Capitol Hill, armed at last with the kind of issue they had been waiting for, lost no time in exploiting it. A resolution of impeachment was swiftly drawn up and, on February 24, 1868, was passed overwhelmingly by the House. One week later eleven separate chargés—some of them ludicrous—were drawn up to support the resolution. It appeared probable that, for the first time in the nation’s history, a Chief Executive would be forced out of office before his term had expired.
The House appointed seven “man- agers of the impeachment,” including the old and ailing Stevens as chief strategist and headed by General Benjamin F. Butler (the “butcher of New Orleans,” as he was unfondly known in the South), a congressman from Massachusetts, as chief prosecutor. Attention now turned to the more moderate Senate, where the issue would be decided.
Although the leading impeachers at the outset wrote off as lost the twelve Senate Democrats, they knew they could still convict the President by the necessary two-thirds vote if they could keep all but six Republicans in the radical fold. To their dismay, however, a preliminary party caucus revealed that precisely six courageous Republicans believed that the evidence introduced to support the eleven Articles of Impeachment was not sufficient to convict the President. A seventh Republican, Senator Ross, refused to divulge his intentions. Although the radicals were shaken by the Kansas freshman’s reluctance, they still believed that Ross, who represented perhaps the most anti-Johnson state in the Union, would vote for conviction. And they were prepared to take any steps necessary to make certain he did.
Vinnie Ream was well along toward completion of the clay model of Lincoln when Ross became the storm center of the impeachment. Given the unrelenting pressures applied to the senator, and Vinnie’s supposed influence on Ross, who still boarded with the Ream family, it was inevitable that she would be pulled into the vortex.
On the eve of the Senate vote of May 16 the radicals dispatched to the Ream home on North B Street Daniel Sickles, another tough ex-general, who had been military governor of the Carolinas until President Johnson had recalled him for being too arduous in the execution of his duties. When Vinnie answered the door, as Sickles later recalled, “I pushed my way iri.” The general got right to the point: “You know what I came here for. I came to save Ross. You can help me.” Sickles proceeded to rehash the President’s alleged crimes in an attempt to convince Vinnie that Ross’s political salvation was in her hands. Vinnie had become inured to such approaches, however, and scarcely replied. Although she protested truthfully that Ross was staying elsewhere that evening, Sickles planted himself in a parlor chair and stubbornly waited in vain for him throughout the night, with a nervous and tired Vinnie his reluctant hostess.
Ross had suffered his own relentless harassment. On the same evening as the Sickles visit he received this telegram from home: “Kansas has heard the evidence and demands the conviction of the President.” It was signed “D. R. Anthony, and 1,000 Others.” The next morning, before going to the Senate chamber to vote, Ross replied: To D. R. Anthony and 1,000 Others: I do not recognize your right to demand that I shall vote either for or against conviction. I have taken an oath to do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, and I trust that I shall have the courage and honesty to vote according to the dictates of my judgment and for the highest good of my country.
That day Ross and six other Republican senators saved Andrew Johnson by a single vote. Following the outcome the seven senators were pariahs in Washington and in their native states. “D. R. Anthony and Others” wired Ross that “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.”
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.
She established a studio in Rome and selected a flawless slab of white Carrara marble for the Lincoln statue. After six months of arduous work the statue was finished, and Vinnie returned to the United States. Her moment of truth came shortly thereafter —in January of 1871, when members of Congress and other government officials, journalists, and personal friends gathered in the Rotunda to view the statue prior to its public unveiling. An Illinois delegation comprising individuals who had known the living Lincoln intimately were in the audience as the veil was slowly raised.
“There was a momentary hush, and than an involuntary, warm, and universal demonstration of applause gave the verdict of the distinguished and critical gathering, and assured the artist that her work was to be set down a success,” commented The Evening Star of Washington. ”… And then everybody turned to where the little sculptor-girl stood, a little in the rear with glad tears in her eyes, and congratulations were poured in upon her. …”
At the lavish public unveiling later that month Senator Matthew Carpenter of Wisconsin said that “if she has failed at all, it is in presenting a statue more attractive than the original. But failing in this is no impeachment of her genius, for God only could make a face so sad, so rugged, so homely as Lincoln’s was.” Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois added that “it was fit that he who, by his own unaided efforts, had risen from obscurity to the highest earthly position, and who had gone down to the grave mourned by the civilized world, should have his features transmitted to posterity by one who, like him, had nothing but her hands and her head to urge her forward.”
Vinnie’s achievement brought her both fame and new opportunity. At the age of thirty-one she interrupted her work to marry Lieutenant Richard L. Hoxie of the United States Army Engineers in a ceremony considered brilliant even by Washington standards. She then completed a heroic statue of David Glasgow Farragut, famed Civil War admiral, which had been commissioned by Congress. The statue was cast in bronze from the propeller of Farragut’s flagship, the U.S.S. Hartford , and placed in Farragut Square in the heart of the city. Although Vinnie, who became a popular Washington hostess, would later do other works as well, including two for Statuary Hall in the Capitol, she would be best remembered as the girl who sculptured Lincoln.
A century later millions of visitors to the Capitol each year pause before the statue of Abraham Lincoln, struck by its aura of simplicity and sadness. Few, however, know that the statue, one of the nation’s great art treasures, was executed by a young girl. Nor do they know how close a vindictive Congress came to reducing the statue merely to Vinnie Ream’s fond dream.