"She had a mind of many colors, and there
was the very devil of a rush
and Forward! March! about her, always in a hurry."
--Danish critic Georg Brandes
One of three children, two girls and a boy,
Vinnie Ream was born in Madison, Wisconsin to Robert Lee Ream and
Lavinia (McDonald) Ream. When she was ten her family moved to
western Missouri where, for a short time, she attended the academy
section of Christian College in Columbia, Missouri and showed talent
in music and art. With the onset of the Civil War the family was in
Fort Smith, Arkansas and her father took up trade in the Real Estate
business. they managed to work their way through Confederate lines
and go to Washington, D.C., where her father, stricken with
rheumatism, acquired a government job, and Vinnie became a clerk in
the Post Office Department. Photo courtesy
In 1863 she went to the studio of sculptor Clark Mills in one of the wings of the Capitol building and wrote at a later date "I felt at once that I, too, could model and, taking the clay, in a few hours I produced a medallion of an Indian chief's head...." Mills was so awed by her, that he immediately took her on as a pupil. Before long she was sculpting busts of Congressman and other V.I.P.'s that came to the Washington area, including Senator John Sherman, General Custer, Francis Preston Blair, Thaddeus Stevens, and Horace Greeley. In the latter part of 1864 some friends arranged with President Lincoln for her to model a bust of him. The President refused at first. Upon hearing that she was a poor girl struggling on her own, he relented and gave her half-hour daily sittings for a period of five months. /She recalled later that she was "still under the spell of his kind eyes and genial presence" at the time that he was assassinated.
The bust she created won approval of her admirers. In the summer months of 1866 Congress awarded her a $10,000 contract to do a full-size marble statue of Lincoln which was to stand in the Capitol rotunda. She was the first woman to ever win such a federal commission. Criticism also came at the "incredulity" of an eighteen year old being awarded such. Mary Todd Lincoln expressed her disapproval, and Jane Swisshelm, a journalist, wrote that Vinnie's success was based solely on her "feminine wiles."
Once her plaster model was done in a studio in the Capitol, Vinnie went to Rome with her parents to turn it into marble. Secretary of State William Seward gave her a letter of introduction to take along, and in 1869 she sailed for a two year residence in Rome. While there, Vinnie was painted by George P.A. Healy and Caleb Bingham. She did busts of Giacomo Cardinal Antonelli and Franz Liszt. Although Georg Brandes was critical of her vanity and her way of being "ingratiatingly coquettish towards anyone whose affection she wished to win," he was still quite taken by her generosity and dedication to her work. He could only marvel at "her ingenuousness, her ignorance, her thorough goodness, in short, all her simple healthiness of soul."
From the quarries of Carrara, she chose the purest white marble and under the tutelage of her teacher, Luigi Majoli, she used the model to create Abraham Lincoln in stone. In 1871 the finished staue was unveiled in the Capitol. The President's head was bent slightly forward and his eyes fixed on someone as he extended to them the Proclamation with his right hand. It was an awesome production completed by an artist with no formal training, and Matthew Carpenter, a Senator from Wisconsin desrcibed the reaction: "Of this statue, as a mere work of art, I am no judge. What Praxiteles might have thought of such a work, I neither know nor care; but I am able to say, in the presence of this vast and brilliant assembly, that it is Abraham Lincoln all over."
In 1875 Vinnie won a $20,000 federal commission to sculpt a bronze of Admiral David G. Farragut. She cast it from the propeller of Farragut's ship the Hartford, he with telescope in hand, right foot resting on a tackle box and it was unveiled in Washington's Farragut Square on May 28, 1878.
At the age of thirty, Vinnie married Lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie. One son Richard Ream Hoxie was born in 1883. The family lived on Farragut Square, and Vinnie often played the harp for small gatherings of friends. She had given up her artistry at her husband's wishes. In 1906 she returned for a short time to sculpture when the State of Iowa commissioned her to make a statue of Samuel Kirkwood, their Civil War Governor, for Statuary Hall in the Capitol building in Washington. Quite frail at the time because of a chronic kidney problem, her husband rigged a rope hoist and boatswain's chair for her to be able to complete the statue.
Her last work was commissioned by the State of Oklahoma for a statue of Cherokee Chief Sequoyah. She was able to complete the model shortly before she died, and it was cast in bronze by George Zolnay. In the latter part of the summer of 1914, Vinnie had an acute attack of uremic poisoning. She was taken to Washington for treatment, and died there on November 20 of 1914. Episcopal services were held at St. John's Church on Lafayette Square and she was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. How fitting that her grave should be marked by a replica of her ideal, a bronze statue of "Sappho."
Photo courtesy Ron Williams