Vinnie Ream (1847–1914) was an American sculptor whose most famous work was the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the U.S. Capitol rotunda.
At the age of 18, she was selected by Congress to sculpt a memorial statue of Abraham Lincoln, making her the first woman commissioned to create a work of art for the United States government. It would take four and half years before the work would be completed, and during this time Ream became the center of one of the most public and divisive debates ever to take place concerning the relationship between art and American nationhood.
Her work, her character, and her sex were relentlessly scrutinized by senators, editorial pundits, and newspaper gossips.
Some saw Ream as a self-taught sculptor and genius, a person who proved that privilege and social refinement were not requirements for success in the United States. On the other hand, some say she used her good looks to manipulate with a middle-aged man, including senators, Civil War generals, and at least two presidents so that she could guarantee government patronage for her art.
Vinnie Ream fascinated Washington society from the last year of Lincoln’s administration until Garfield’s, but the full range of her fascination remains unknown. Her artistic talent was undoubtedly but a minor cause of it.
President Lincoln gave Vinnie half hour of his time every day for five months. And as Vinnie says, it seemed that he liked her company. No one was allowed to interrupt him during that period of time.
A contract signed in the summer of 1866 stipulated that she would be paid $5000 when she submitted a full-size plaster model of her Lincoln sculpture, and she would be paid an additional $5000 when the complete marble statue was installed in the Capitol. In today’s money, that would be around $150,000, which is not bad at all for a teenager.
When Vinnie was awarded the contract for a full-length statue of the recently assassinated Lincoln, she was also given a room in the basement of the Capitol as a studio. There, she set up the bust of Lincoln which she had modeled during the last six months of his life.
Using it as a starting point, she modeled the rest of her statue in clay, working slowly, it seems, because her studio became a popular meeting place for the congressman, senators, cabinet officials, Civil War veterans, diplomats, and journalists. During this time, she stopped her work to make a bust of several prominent studio visitors. Further impeding progress, there was an attempt to evict Vinnie from her Capitol salon in 1868, evidently because it was considered a hotbed of anti-impeachment activity. The eviction, like the attempt to remove President Johnson, failed narrowly.
Vinnie was not a highly educated girl. Her only known formal education lasted for one year (1857-58). By the time she applied to Congress for the Lincoln commission, it was abundantly clear that she had a talent for the harp as well as for modeling in clay – but she had never carved marble, nor had she made anything more ambitious than a bust. She did not study anatomy, as Harriet Hosmer did, nor did her family evidently have money with which to buy influence.
Why, then, did Congress give her such an important commission – or any commission at all, for that matter? Senator Charles Sumner wondered many of these same things on the floor of the Senate, as did Senator Howard of Michigan, but both of them were branded with one or another form of political censorship. The measure passed with only nine senators voting no.
Senator Sumner is a particularly significant figure to have argued against the Ream commission since he probably knew more about sculpting than anyone else in the chamber. He was an early friend to major American sculptors, and his opposition points up the evident fact that the commission was not awarded on the grounds of artistic achievement or promise.