July 28, 1866: Vinnie Ream receives a Commission from Congress

Charles Sumner couldn’t believe what some of his fellow Senators were proposing. It was starting to feel more painful than the beating of a gutta-percha cane by an ignorant South Carolina congressman.

Sumner hailed from Boston, the Athens of America, and had studied the classics at Harvard and travelled the continent. He had visited Florence and Rome and admired Hiram Powers “Greek Slave” and Horatio Greenough’s “Washington” and he had bought Thomas Crawford’s first work and helped him win the commission for the statue of Freedom on the Capitol dome. He knew what made a great sculptor. So who was this girl?

Ream, Vinnie; SHS#015057, CD172Vinnie Ream was only 18. She had been born in a log cabin in Wisconsin, and worked in the Dead Letter office at the Post Office. Somehow she had been introduced to Clark Mills, who had sculpted the equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson in Nashville. Mills had taken a shine to Vinnie, and when he saw her drawing one day, he half in jest gave her a lump of clay and said “Do a portrait of me”. Vinnie showed such natural talent that before long several men asked her to do busts of them. When Mills visited the White House to take a life mask of President Lincoln, she tagged along, and in 1864, President Lincoln agreed to model for her in the mornings.

So, while Vinnie hadn’t had a lot of experience dealing with the politicians in Washington, she did have an innate ability, she was from the “Wisconsin School of Art”, she knew Lincoln first hand, and she had a lot of fans who thought she might be the right person to commemorate our martyred leader.

Now she had been called to appear before the Senate Committee on the Library, and she was so nervous that she asked General Sherman to accompany her to the proceedings. When Vinnie walked in with Sherman, a number of Senators began applauding and waving their handkerchiefs. “Look, they’re giving an ovation to General Sherman,” Vinnie said. “No Vinnie,” came the reply, “They are giving you an ovation.”

Senator Charles Sumner glared disapprovingly at the demonstration. When Ben Wade moved to take up the resolution to commission the statue, Sumner grumbled, “ I hope that will not be taken up.”

Several Senators responded, “Oh, let us vote.”

Sumner couldn’t believe his colleagues.” ‘Oh, let us vote’ … ‘For a statue’ – an impossible statue, I say; one which cannot be made”

The question passed the committee and the full senate resumed debate the next morning.

Sumner wasn’t about to let the Capitol grounds be sullied by this girl. “I am bound to express my opinion that this candidate is not competent to produce the work which you propose to order. You might as well place her on the staff of General Grant, or put General Grant aside and place her on horseback in his stead. She cannot do it. She might as well contract to furnish an epic poem, or the draft of a bankrupt bill. . . “

Sumner launched into an erudite examination of the art of the Capitol, from the portraits of Washington by Peale and Stuart, the pictures by Trumbull in the Rotunda, the “Landing of the Pilgrims” by Weir, the portrait of LaFayette by Ary Scheffer. Turning to sculpture, he reviewed the “Columbus” by Persico , Greenough’s “Settler struggling with the Savage” as well as his statue of Washington half nude in his toga – also the works of Crawford – the pediment over the great door and the statue of Liberty which looks down from the top of the dome, the bronze doors by Rogers . . .”

Senator James Nesmith was from the new state of Oregon. “Mr. President . . . My mind has never been perverted by the extensive reading which the Senator from Massachusetts has had, or by that vast amount of lore in which he is so accomplished, but I claim to be equally as good a judge as he is of any mere matter of art which is an imitation of a natural object.

“He objects to this young artist–this young scion of the West, from the same land from which Lincoln came–a young person who manifests intuitive genius, and who is able to copy the works of nature without having perused the immense tomes and the grand volumes of which the Senator may boast–a person who was born and raised in the wilds of the West, and who is able to copy its great works.

“Sir, the Senator might have raised the same objection to Mr. Lincoln, that he was not qualified for the Presidency because his reading had not been as extensive as that of the Senator, or because he had lived among rude and uncultivated society. . .

“If this young lady and the works which she has produced had been brought to his notice by some near-sighted, frog-eating Frenchman, with a pair of green spectacles on his nose, the Senator would have said that she was deserving of commendation. If she could have spoken three or four different languages that nobody else could have understood, or, perhaps, that neither she nor the Senator could’ understand, he would vote her $50,000. (laughter)

“Here is a young girl of poor parentage, struggling with misfortune, her father a mere clerk in a department here; and by a casualty, on being’ introduced into a studio, she manifests great taste and great powers of art, and in the short experience which she has had she has developed wonderful powers in that line. But the Senator from Massachusetts, with all his learning’ and’ all his foreign tastes, is unable to appreciate anything of that sort. . . I can tell the height of a mountain, the length of a river, or the meanderings of a trail as well as he can, and I say that my judgment on those subjects is equal to his.”

That afternoon Congress authorized a contract with Miss Vinnie Ream for a life-size statue of the late President, Abraham Lincoln, to be executed by her at a price not exceeding $10,000; one half payable on completion of the model in plaster, and the remaining half on completion of the statue in marble,

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