It was a confident 17-year-old art student named Vinnie Ream who boldly requested that the president of the United States pose for her while she honed her craft. Abraham Lincoln allowed the teenager 15 minutes per day to observe and sculpt a bust of him in clay while he worked at his desk during the waning months of the Civil War. The sessions continued up to the day of his assassination, April 14, 1865.
Being the last person to sculpt Lincoln from life, Ream was a logical choice when, a year later, she was commissioned by Congress to create a full-length marble statue of the martyred president to permanently stand in the Capitol’s rotunda. This high-profile assignment, combined with her youthfulness and gender, turned Ream into an international celebrity.
Although quite skilled as an artist, her success in life was equally attributable to her mastering of another kind of art: personal politics. Ream understood that getting ahead meant currying the favor of influential men. Over the next decade she became a well-connected insider, using her coquettish charms to woo men twice her age. Affairs with married Civil War hero William T. Sherman, Masonic leader Albert Pike and the notorious lothario, composer Franz Liszt, were the talk of the town and provided fodder for the press. While each relationship helped her career, her critics—and there were plenty— sought to crush her. Women in particular were offended by the brazen use of her “womanly wiles” to further her fame.
Marriage at age 30 to a wealthy army officer, Richard Hoxie, finally slowed Ream down. She gave up sculpting until shortly before her death. Her gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery overlooks the city where thousands view her Lincoln each day.
Originally published in the August 2007 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.