Vinnie Ream – An American Sculptor
Updated: Jun 6, 2019
By Edward S. Cooper
In 1863 with the Civil War still raging, 16-year old Lavinia ‘Vinnie’ Ream was introduced by a family friend to Clark Mills, the most eminent sculptor in the U.S. at the time. While observing Mills, Vinnie declared, “I could do that!” Mills gave her modeling clay and was so impressed by the medallion she created, he offered her a student-assistant position on the spot.
Thus begins the incredible journey of Vinnie Ream. With almost no artistic training, she carved a path alongside the other notable sculptors utilizing what she had; her beauty, appealing personality and her dogged determination.
Vinnie became the first woman and youngest artist to be awarded a Congressional Commission.
Launching her career at 17 with a bust of President Lincoln (newly re-elected, Lincoln sat for a half-hour session most days he was in the White House) — Vinnie became the first woman and youngest artist to be awarded a Congressional Commission. Her full-size Lincoln statue, commissioned in 1866, still stands in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building.
Ahead of Her Time
Traveling abroad with her father to Europe (where her full-size clay model of Lincoln was carved from Italian Cararra marble), Vinnie was among the group of American female sculptors known as the White Marmorean Flock. She befriended many of the best artists and took the opportunity to study in Rome with Luigi Majoli and in Paris with Léon Bonnat. Gustave Dore, Kaulbach, legendary composer and pianist Franz Liszt, and G.P.A. Healy (famed portrait painter) either sat for her or created works of her.
Vinnie’s rise, in part, can be attributed to her talent for self-promotion. Her consummate letter-writing campaigns cultivated friendships with a who’s-who of noteworthy male politicians. These men advocated on her behalf for several high-profile commissions, including the Lincoln, and the Farragut (in honor of David Farragut, the first Admiral of the U.S. Navy.) Among her devoted friends; General William T. Sherman, Thaddeus Stevens, General George A. Custer, General John Frémont, Daniel Voorhees, Alfred Pike, and Ezra Cornell (co-founder of Cornell University.) Sherman and Pike (37 years her senior) were reportedly her lovers.
She curried few female companions, possibly because of her insistence on being accepted as an artist instead of being content as a wife and mother. This path was certainly counter to the accepted practice of the times, and likely the cause behind the strong opposition she faced. Those who disapproved of the government contracts awarded her included the legendary Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, Horace Greeley (editor of the New-York Tribune), Mary Lincoln (a dear friend of Senator Sumner), Jane Grey Swisshelm (influential newspaper columnist and lifelong friend of Mary Lincoln), and Julia Dent Grant (wife of Ulysses S. Grant.) Greeley’s animus may have been attributed to the bust Vinnie created for him. With his ‘round face, spectacles, and fringe of white whiskers…he resembled an owl.’ Vinnie sculpted what she saw, but the Tribune’s negative press propped the door open for ongoing personal and professional slights.
Her influence even reportedly shadowed the impeachment proceedings against President Andrew Johnson in 1868. Edmund G. Ross, a junior senator from Kansas, was a long-time friend and lodger of the Ream family. Ross was also the key voted needed for conviction. Eventually casting for acquittal, the radical press accused Ross of changing his mind when “acquittal slept with him overnight.” This was an open attack on Vinnie, who was singled out because Ross was a friend of the family. A sampling of her collected works: Sappho 1865-1870, Thaddeus Stevens 1865, America 1870, The West 1870, Miriam 1870, Abraham Lincoln 1871, Admiral David G. Farragut 1881, Samuel Jordan Kirkwood 1907, Sequoya 1912-1914.
In 1877, at the age of 30, Vinnie decided it was time to marry. She was growing weary of constantly chasing commissions. Never at the loss for suitors, she chose Richard Hoxie, a first lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, who was ‘charming, handsome, rich and persistent.’ They married on May 28, 1878. Sherman gave her away (as her father was very ill) and she chose Pike to be her fiancé’s best man. Strange choices indeed. But the wedding was well attended by high-ranking politicians and military officers.
Married life to a strongly conservative army officer meant that she eventually put down her tools. Vinnie found herself pregnant in the fall of 1882. A son, named Richard, was born and ‘she gave up all hope of continuing her career.’ The family transferred to Montgomery, AL, and then continued to move often as new appointments for Richard arose. Sadly, when her son was 6 years old, a playmate shot him with an air rifle. The pellet penetrated the skull. Given that the odds were 1000 to one that the child would survive the surgery, Vinnie refused. The boy remained at the age of six mentally for the rest of his life.
In 1905, Vinnie had a heart attack. Richard softened and allowed her to resume the work she loved. In 1907, she received a contract for Kirkwood, in honor of Samuel J. Kirkwood, former Governor of Iowa. This same Kirkwood voted against Vinnie for the Lincoln contract! Her last contract was signed in 1912 for Sequoya. Unfortunately, she left it unfinished. Vinnie collapsed in September 1914 from chronic nephritis and finally succumbed to uremic poisoning on November 20, 1914 at the age of 67. She's buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Her grave is marked by a bronze casting of her Sappho statue.
In 1909, Vinnie told the International Council of Women that “men often, perhaps from a feeling of chivalry, have not desired that women should find occupations in which they could earn their own living, denying them independence that they might be obliged to lean upon them.”
Vinnie pushed against and maneuvered around the boundaries set by a male-dominated society, bowing and yet charging back, to take her place among the leading sculptors of her time.