Lavinia Ellen Ream (Vinnie Ream) (1847–1914), whose work in Rock Creek cemetery is represented by her Edwin B. Hay Monument, (completed in 1906), was a sculptor of rare distinction in the history of Washington,D.C.
She was the first (and youngest) female sculptor to be awarded a $10,000.00 commission by an act of congress—chosen at the age of 18 to complete a full size marble statue of President Abraham Lincoln. There was a good deal of grumbling by many in power that such a young inexperienced girl did not deserve such a prestigious commission. It was rumored that the president’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, strongly disapproved of Vinnie Ream— one look at Vinnie’s photograph may give a clue as to the true reason for Mrs. Lincoln’s motives in criticizing the young and beautiful artist. It was said that Lincoln was not enthusiastic about sitting for Vinnie, or any other artist, until he heard of her humble beginnings in a frontier cabin in Wisconsin. Lincoln decided, based on their shared origins in poverty, to give the young artist a chance. Lincoln sat for Vinnie for several months in 1864 for a half hour daily as she worked on the clay bust of the great man. She mentioned to her friends that being in such close proximity to Lincoln for all those hours helped her capture the emotion in his face and the weight of his duties in his posture. Her bust would become a life-sized statue after Lincoln’s assassination. In 1865 Vinnie was given the clothing that Lincoln wore the night of his assassination so that her likeness of the martyred president could be portrayed as accurately as possible.
Vinnie Ream’s story is an inspiration to women, past and present. Born in a tiny cabin near the frontier town of Madison Wisconsin, her parents ran a stagecoach stop, and later one of the first hotels in town. Her father was a surveyor and civil servant. In 1861 the Ream family moved to Washington to take advantage of the many positions available at the start of the Civil War. Vinnie was only a teenager when she became the first woman to be hired by the Federal Government, as a clerk in the Dead Letter Office, in the main post office in Washington, D.C. She held that position from 1861 until 1866. She met several congressmen and civil servants while employed there, and by happenstance, met a sculptor named Clark Mills as she accompanied Missouri Congressman James Rollins on a tour of sculptor’s studios in the city. She showed such promise as an artist and sculptor that Mills agreed to take her on as an apprentice. Her energy, talent, and coquettish demeanor won her support of the many political figures and congressman. She created medallions and statues of many important people and it was this support and acclaim that gained her access to the White House.
Vinnie Ream became one of the most famous women in America in January 1871, when her life-sized statue of Lincoln was unveiled in United States Capitol. She was only 23 years old. She had spent two years in Rome turning her plaster model of Abraham Lincoln into an exquisite work of pure Cararra marble. While in Rome, she also completed a bust of the composer Franz Liszt. Her career as a sculptor and demand for her work caused her to quit her job in the Dead Letter Office to work as an artist full time. She received a commission for $20,000.00 to create a bronze statue for Admiral David Farragut— the first U.S. Naval Officer monument—which is now in Farragut Square in the District of Columbia. She used bronze from the propeller of Farragut’s ship for his statue.
Other famous persons who had medallions and busts made by Vinnie Reams were General Ulysses Grant, General Custer, General George McClellan, Fredrick Douglas, General Frémont; Senator Sherman, Peter Cooper, Ezra Cornell, and Horace Greeley.
She continued to work until her marriage to Lieutenant Richard Leveridge Hoxie who was stationed in the capitol in the United States army. He was an officer in the Engineer corps, and later became a Brigadier General and an expert in constructing military fortifications. She stopped work as an artist after marrying Hoxie, had a son and lived as a popular Washington hostess for many years. Eventually, she came out of retirement and resumed her work as an artist— Her last work was designing a full-size statue of the Cherokee chief Sequoyah, the first statue of a Native American to be placed in the Statuary Hall at the Capitol Building. Ream died in 1914 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery at Section South, site Lot 1876, with her husband and his second wife.
A list of the work of this prolific, beautiful and gifted sculptor can be viewed here: