"My work has never been labor, but an ecstatic delight to my soul. I have worked in my studio not envying kings in their splendor; my mind to me was my kingdom, and my work more than diamonds and rubies."
(from an address given to the International Council of Women, Toronto Canada, 1909)
Over the holidays, I stumbled across an interesting book on my mother-in-law's bookshelf: Vinnie Ream: the Story of the Girl Who Sculpted Lincoln by Gordon Langley Hall. For the next several hours, I squirreled myself away in a back room, mesmerized by this incredible woman's story, which I had never known before!
Vinnie Ream was born in a log cabin in Wisconsin in 1847. She had a very interesting childhood and the good fortune to attend Christian College in Columbia, Missouri (up to age twelve, girls could attend the section known as the Academy.) Here she studied the harp, banjo, guitar, and harpsichord. She also took up painting and ultimately decided she wanted to be a sculptress. She confided her dream to Congressman Rollins, an important college visitor who was very impressed by Vinnie's artistic talent. When she left Christian College at age twelve, the President gave her a clipping with this quotation from Robert Hall (English minister and writer) which she kept with her for her entire life:
No man can ever become eminent in anything,
unless he work at it with an earnestness bordering on enthusiasm.
Her family moved to Washington DC when Vinnie was nearly fifteen. On the day they arrived in the city, Vinnie saw Abraham Lincoln himself, walking through the crowded street. She was struck by "the lines of sadness on his face." Vinnie got a job at the Post Office to help support her family.
She loved wandering around DC, admiring the architecture and art. One day, when she was exploring the Rotunda of the Capitol, she ran into Congressman Rollins, who had encouraged her artistic dreams years before. He introduced her to Clark Mills, then the foremost sculptor in America. She ended up becoming his student.
When Lincoln heard about the poor Post Office clerk who had been accepted as a pupil by Clark Mills, he was intrigued. He allowed her to come and try and mold his likeness in clay, as he sat at his desk. As it happened, Vinnie was the last artist Lincoln posed for before his assassination. Shortly afterwards, Vinnie became the youngest person and first woman to receive a commission as an artist from the United States government for a statue, the statue of Lincoln. She was nineteen years old!
Once the government approved her initial plaster model, Vinnie was able to travel many places, including Florence. When she was in Italy, she studied sculpture and picked out the marble for her statue. She met the painter George Peter Alexander Healy during her Italian travels, and he painted her portrait, with her hand on her guitar. (above)
Vinnie went on to have a very full life as a successful, professional, working artist, with one major obstacle: her husband. When she was 31, she finally got married (very late in life, in those days) to a soldier named Richard Hoxie. Richard believed it was the husband's job to earn money, and he forbade his new wife to work any more, except as a hobby. Vinnie obeyed him, but she sorely missed her work. However, after many years (and the birth of a son), Vinnie became unwell and very sad, and her husband relented. She was then able to work as a sculptress until her death at age 67. On her grave, her husband placed the statue of Sappho, which she had created.
My work has never been labor, but an ecstatic delight to my soul.
Thanks for reading my blog! I hardly did justice in my short blog post to all of the fascinating details of this woman's life. I recommend reading the book, Vinnie Ream by Gordon Langley Hall. In fact, if you want to read it, express your interest in the comments below. I will pick a name at random next week (January 10) and I will mail my copy of the book to the winner, for free! I'll even write a special secret note inside of it...
PS. If you like reading about amazing women artists from history, please check out my blog post: Divine Passion: Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. I also wrote a little bit about Camille Claudel, another female sculptor from history, in my blog post: "When We Dead Awaken."