In 1866, at the age of 18, Vinnie Ream was selected by the U.S. Congress to sculpt a memorial statue of President Abraham Lincoln. This made her the first female artist commissioned to create a work of art for the United States government. Ream had previously shown her ability to depict the president in a bust that she created from life in Washington. Her selection, however, was accompanied by controversy because she was young, female, and had friendships with members of Congress. Despite the objections, Ream was given the commission and the statue of Lincoln was unveiled in the Capitol Rotunda in 1871. Ream would later create sculptures for the National Statuary Hall Collection.
Lavinia ("Vinnie") Ellen Ream was born in Madison, Wisconsin, on September 25, 1847. At an early age, Ream showed artistic interests and talents, which she explored as a student at the Academy, a division of the Christian College of Columbia, Missouri. During the Civil War, Ream's family settled in Washington, D.C., and she studied with sculptor Clark Mills in his studio at the Capitol. Later, when she was in Europe for the carving of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, Ream took the opportunity to study in Rome with Luigi Majoli and in Paris with Léon Bonnat.
Ream took her full-size model of Lincoln, which she created in her studio in the Capitol, to Rome, and there the statue was carved from a block of Carrara marble. Ream was among the group of American female sculptors working in the Italian city who were known as the White Marmorean Flock. As was the practice of both male and female sculptors, Ream had her model carved in marble by skilled Italian stonecarvers. In the statue she captured a solemn Lincoln with his right leg slightly bent and his right arm extended. He looks down toward his hand, which holds the Emancipation Proclamation. The lowered head and extended arm, as well as Lincoln's left hand, which clutches his flowing cloak, create a serious, contemplative impression. Ream returned to the United States in late 1870 and the unveiling of the statue occurred shortly thereafter in January 1871.
Ream's sculptures of (L to R) Lincoln, Kirkwood and Sequoyah.
More than 40 years later, two bronze statues by Ream were placed in the Capitol. The first was the statue of Samuel Jordan Kirkwood, donated in 1913 to the National Statuary Hall Collection by the state of Iowa. Ream spent summers in Iowa, and in 1906 she was commissioned to create a statue of Kirkwood, who was governor and U.S. Senator from that state. The second work, commissioned in 1912, is the statue of Sequoyah, the Native American recognized for inventing the written alphabet for the Cherokee language. Ream herself maintained throughout her life the friendships she made as a girl with Cherokees. Her statue shows Sequoyah holding in his left hand a tablet with his alphabet. After Ream's death in 1914, sculptor George Zolnay completed the statue; it was donated in 1917 to the National Statuary Hall Collection by the state of Oklahoma.
The 40-year gap between the unveiling of the statue of Lincoln and the completion of the one of Kirkwood, as well as her sporadic sculptural production, was the result of Ream's focusing on her obligations as a wife and mother. When she married Lieutenant Richard Hoxie in 1878, he imposed restrictions on his wife's work as a sculptor. Their son, also named Richard, was born in 1883. In addition to her work in the U.S. Capitol, Ream's sculptures include her statue of Admiral David G. Farragut (1881) at the well-known Washington landmark, Farragut Square. Ream died in 1914 in Washington, D.C. Her grave in Arlington Cemetery is marked by a replica of her sculpture Sappho.