#ThrowbackThursday: The Woman Behind the Men

by Elissa Blattman, Project Assistant

Out of the 100 statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol, only nine are of women.  Most of the statues there and elsewhere in the Capitol are of men who have been deemed great and important enough to be on display in the building that represents our nation.  Though women are underrepresented in the number of statues, there is one woman who is behind the creation of three of those that stand there.

Vinnie Ream was born on September 25, 1847 in Missouri.  As a child, she was taught how to draw and paint by Winnebago Indians.  Her family eventually moved to Washington, DC, where she began to study with DC-based sculptor, Benjamin Paul Akers. During the Civil War, Ream took up other work with the US Postal Service and also volunteered with war relief efforts. In 1863, Missouri Congressman and friend, James Rollins, introduced her to well-known sculptor, Clark Mills, who offered her a job as his apprentice.  Under Mills, Ream flourished and began creating busts of some of Washington’s important people, including Thaddeus Stevens.

In 1964, Ream got James Rollins to ask President Abraham Lincoln’s permission for her to sculpt him while he was working in his office. Lincoln, after learning that she came from a poor background like he did, agreed to let her create a bust of him.  Ream later said of Lincoln, “He had been painted and modeled before, but when he learned that I was poor, he granted me the sittings for no other purpose than that I was a poor girl.  Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world, I am sure he would have refused at that time.”  Ream visited the White House for 30 minutes a day everyday for five months to sit with Lincoln, until he died in April 1865.  She said her time with Lincoln and his death impacted her life.

After Lincoln’s assassination, Congress determined it would give $10,000 to an artist to sculpt a statue of Lincoln for the Capitol’s Rotunda.  Many sculptors tried to win Congress’ commission, including Vinnie Ream.  Previously sculpted by her, Thaddeus Stevens petitioned Congress in her favor.  Other members, though, such as Senator Jacob Howard, thought a woman would be “a complete failure in the execution of [the statue].”  Despite the small opposition, Ream was awarded the $10,000 commission on July 28, 1866, when she was just 18 years old.  She was the youngest person and first female to be commissioned by the United States government to create a work of art.  Her age and gender created some controversy when the news got out.  Mostly, however, people were excited to see the project underway and they became interested in the artist that became an overnight sensation.  Many people, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ulysses S Grant, and Matthew Brady, came to the studio inside the Capitol to watch her work. In order to have the statue of Lincoln be realistic in size, Ream was given the clothes he was wearing on the night of his assassination so she could take measurements. The statue was unveiled four months after her 23rd birthday on January 25, 1871 in a big ceremony that included many top government officials.

Later in 1871, Ream opened her own studio in New York.  When she got married in 1878, her husband urged her to give up her career as a sculptor in order to be a full time wife and mother, which she did for the most part.  In 1872, she was commissioned to create a statue for David Farragut, which has stood in Farragut Square in Washington, DC since its unveiling in 1881.  Ream also was asked to create two additional statues for Statuary Hall – Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, which was donated to the Collection by the state of Iowa in 1913, and Sequoyah for Oklahoma, which she started and G. Julian Zolnay completed after she passed away in 1914.  Vinnie Ream is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Join in on the conversation!  Post comments below, on Facebook, or Tweet us @womenshistory using the hashtags #ThrowbackThursday and #TBT.

Sources: Architect of the Capitol, Encyclopedia Britannica, The State Historical Society of Missouri, Arlington Cemetery

Photo credits: Ream with bust of Lincoln: Library of Congress, Lincoln statue: Architect of the CapitolSequoyah statue: Architect of the Capitol, Kirwood statue: Architect of the Capitol

One Response to “#ThrowbackThursday: The Woman Behind the Men”

  1. Martha George Withers says:

    I wonder how many other sculptures in Statuary Hall were sculpted by women? I know that Texas’ contribution of Stephen F. Austin and Sam Houston were done by Elisabet Ney, a German born and trained sculptor who moved to Texas in 1873. Several women’s groups were responsible for the commissions and funding different stages of the process. The studio she designed is now a museum in Austin, TX.

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