Vinnie Ream achieved celebrity in 1866 as the first woman artist to be awarded a Congressional commission. Her full-length sculpture of Abraham Lincoln, creating enormous controversy in the post-Civil War era, is still on display in the U. S. Capitol Rotunda. Ever since Ream was awarded the commission, critics, scholars, and historians have debated how a young novice sculptor with no formal education in the art was chosen over a field of established, predominantly male professional sculptors. When she received the commission, Ream was a month shy of her nineteenth birthday and had only been sculpting for approximately two years.
Ream was born in Madison, Wisconsin, the daughter of a government surveyor. As a child, she lived with her family on the frontier in Missouri, Iowa, and Kansas, moving from place to place as her father’s occupation required. As a young adolescent, she briefly attended Christian College in Columbia, Missouri, where she enjoyed courses in music, poetry, and painting. In 1861, due to the poor health of Ream’s father, the family settled in Washington, DC, where her parents found it difficult to stay out of poverty. The following year, Ream was hired to work in the Dead Letter Office of the Post Office Department. To land the clerkship, she claimed she was older than 16, though in reality she was only 14 years of age. Earning $500 a year, her income helped improve her family’s financial situation.
In 1863, Ream met Clark Mills, the acclaimed Washington sculptor, when she toured his studio in the basement of the Capitol. In her memoir, Ream asserted that on this visit, she made a clay medallion of an Indian chief’s head in a period of several hours, which so