A look back to 1864, to a woman whose hands left an imprint on history. Vinnie Ream (1847-1914), had sculpted a bust of Abraham Lincoln, which took her five months to complete, and it is said he sat for her. After Lincoln's death, at the age of eighteen, Vinnie was commissioned by the U.S. Government to sculpt a full figure statue of Lincoln for the Capitol. She was the first female and the youngest, to ever be commissioned, and in addition, she was one of the first women to be employed in the Dead Letter Office of the United States Postal Service (from 1862-1866). The Abraham Lincoln statue was unveiled in 1871, when she was twenty-three years of age. Later she was to sculpt two more statues, now part of the Statuary Hall Collection: Iowa Governor during the Civil War, Samuel Kirkwood; and Sequoyah, Cherokee leader.
I took a photograph of the Lincoln statue on a visit to the Capitol, some years back. I had no idea at that time the history behind the statue.
She wrote: “Congress appropriated money to erect a marble statue of the martyred President in the Capitol, it never occurred to me, with my youth and my inexperience, to compete for that great honor; but I was induced to place my likeness of him [Lincoln] before the committee having the matter under consideration, and, together with many other artists--competitors for this work--I was called before this committee. I shall never forget the fear that fell upon me, as the chairman (the Hon. John H. Rice, of Maine, who had a kind heart, but a very stern manner) looked up through his glasses, from his seat at the head of the table, and questioned and cross-questioned me until I was so frightened that I could hardly reply to his questions: "How long had I been studying art?'' and had I ever made a marble statue?'' My knees trembled and I shook like an aspen, and I had not enough presence of mind even to tell him that I had made the bust from sittings from life. Seeing my dire confusion, and not being able to hear my incoherent replies, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, and a request to Judge Marshall, of Illinois, to kindly see the young artist home! Once there, in the privacy of my own room, I wept bitter tears that I had been such an idiot as to try to compete with men, and remembering the appearance before that stern committee as a terrible ordeal before unmerciful judges, I promised myself it should be my last experience of that kind."
"Judge then of my surprise and delight when I learned that, guided by the opinion of Judge David Davis, Senator Trumbull, Marshal Lamon, Sec. O. H. Browning, Judge Dickey, and many others of President Lincoln's old friends, that I had produced the most faithful likeness of him, they had awarded the commission to me-the little western sculptor. The Committee on Mines and Mining tendered me their room in the Capitol, in which to model my statue, because it was next to the room of Judge David Davis, and he could come in daily and aid me with his friendly criticisms. His comfortable chair was kept in readiness. He came daily, and suggesting ‘a little more here--a little on there--more inclining of the bended head--more angularity of the long limbs,’ he aided me in my sacred work by his encouraging words and generous sympathy.”
She wrote this after the unveiling of the Lincoln statue in January, 1871: “This night when the Lincoln statue was unveiled in the rotunda of the Capitol was the supreme moment of my life. I had known and loved the man! My country had loved him and cherished his memory. In tears the people had parted with him. With shouts of joy and acclamations of affection they had received his image in the marble. Upon the very spot where a few years before they had gathered in sorrow to gaze upon his lifeless body lying there in state while a nation mourned, they had gathered again to unveil his statue. ‘The marble is the resurrection,’ say the old sculptors, and now the dead had arisen to live forever in the hearts of the people whom he loved so well.”
Her work included sculptures of other famous people, President Ulysses S. Grant, Senator John Sherman, Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, Frederick Douglas, but one I find especially beautiful, is her Sappho, Muse of Poetry, which is at the Smithsonian Museum.
Sappho, Greek Muse of Poetry, Smithsonian Museum