Vinnie Ream was an American artist best known for sculpting a controversial statue of Abraham Lincoln which stands in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Ream stepped into an enormous controversy when the Congress commissioned her to create the statue in the late 1860s, when she was still a teenager.
Though trained in sculpture, Ream was not a highly regarded artist at the time she became famous. And it was widely rumored that political connections as well as Ream’s personal attributes won her the commission to create the Lincoln statue.
During the creation of the statue Ream was given a room inside the Capitol to use as a studio. And that alone seemed to imply favoritism. She also traveled to Europe at government expense, with letters of introduction from top government officials.
Ream had actually met Lincoln, and had convinced him to sit for her while she created a bust of him in 1864. So the idea of her sculpting Lincoln after his death was not completely outlandish. But that did not diminish the controversy about her commission.
Ream’s artistic career continued after the Lincoln controversy, and she also created a large public statue of Admiral Farragut, which stands today in a square in Washington. In her later life she married an officer in the U.S. Army, and became something of a socialite as a Washington hostess.
Besides her statue of Lincoln, Ream created two other statues within the U.S. Capitol. But she is remembered not so much for artistic skill as being a young woman at the center of controversy.
Early Life of Vinnie Ream
Vinnie Ream was born September 25, 1847, in Madison, Wisconsin, which was then along the American frontier. Her father, who had some political connections, found employment in Washington, D.C., and she spent part of her childhood there.
After a return to the West, the Ream family returned to Washington during the Civil War, and young Vinnie found work, at the age of 15, as a clerk in the Post Office Department of the federal government. She also began taking classes with a sculptor, Clark Mills.
She learned the rudiments of sculpting, and approached President Lincoln and asked him to sit for her. Lincoln was charmed by her, and agreed to have her visit the White House. She created a bust of Lincoln. She also created busts of prominent political figures, including Thaddeus Stevens.
Vinnie Ream’s Lincoln Statue
After Lincoln assassination there was great interest in Congress in honoring the fallen president by placing a statue of him in a prominent place in the Capitol. A competition was announced to award a commission to create what was intended to be a definitive representation of Lincoln.
Vinnie Ream entered the contest but, as a female and a teenager, she was not expected to win. To the surprise of many, the Congress awarded her the commission.
A contract signed in the summer of 1866 stipulated that she would be paid $5,000 when she submitted a full-size plaster model of her Lincoln sculpture. And she would be paid an additional $5,000 when the complete marble statue was installed in the Capitol.
The Congress also provided Ream with a work space, a room on a lower level of the Capitol. There were accusations that members of Congress had been unduly charmed by the young woman, or somehow political influence had created favorable treatment.
Some of the questions certainly seemed legitimate. Awarding a very prestigious contract to a teenager, and one with very limited qualifications, was highly unusual. The press made much of the situation, and newspaper and magazine readers were treated to stories which raised many questions.
An article in The Atlantic in November 1869 was withering in its criticism of Congress while allowing that Vinnie Ream had done nothing wrong. “She had done little more than open her mouth and let the plum fall in it,” the magazine stated.
However, the magazine noted that the Lincoln statue was no trifling matter, nothing “The Abraham Lincoln of future generations was to be created.” And the artist called upon was “an untried child.”
As the story played out in the press, Ream worked away on her sculpture. The plaster model was completed, and displayed within the Capitol. Ream traveled to Europe, carrying letters of introduction by William Seward, the secretary of state. An Italian stone carver was enlisted to execute the finished marble statue.
The finished statue was finally unveiled in 1871. It stands today in the rotunda of the Capitol, where it is admired by thousands of tourists who likely have no idea it was once the subject of so much controversy.
In 1875 Ream again won a government commission, this time to create a sculpture of Union war hero Admiral David Farragut. She again won a competition against much more experienced sculptors. She was favored, it was said, by Farragut’s widow as well as General William Tecumseh Sherman, who served on the committee which chose the artist.
While working on the Farragut statue Ream met and married an officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Richard L. Hoxie. They married in 1878, and took up residence in Washington, where they became known for hosting social gatherings.
After Ream’s Farragut statue was unveiled in 1881 she retired somewhat from her artistic career. And she became a subject of fascination in Washington society.
Later in life she returned to art and completed two more statues for the U.S. Capitol, for the collection donated by the states in Statuary Hall. She created a statue of Samuel Kirkwood, a governor of Iowa (a gift from the State of Iowa) and a statue of Sequoyah, the inventor of the Cherokee alphabet (a gift from the state of Oklahoma).
Vinnie Ream Hoxie died November 20, 1914, and was buried alongside her husband at Arlington National Cemetery, across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C.