Vinnie Ream

The "Prairie Cinderella" who sculpted Lincoln and Farragut — and set tongues wagging

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No sooner had crusty Civil War hero Adm. David "Damn the Torpedoes!" Farragut died in August 1870 than efforts to raise a monument to his memory sprang up. The nation's most famous sculptors entered a fierce competition to determine who would win the prestigious commission to sculpt America's first admiral. After the marble dust cleared, the winner was not one of the old lions of American sculpture but an obscure, beautiful 26-year-old woman named Vinnie Ream.

To her supporters, Ream was just a simple girl from the Wisconsin wilderness. To her detractors, she was a shameless flirt who used her feminine wiles to win commissions her mediocre talent didn't merit.

No one suggested that Vinnie Ream lacked ambition. At 19, her supporters convinced President Lincoln to sit for her while she created his bust in clay. She later won a commission to create a full-length statue of the President, which now stands in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Her first salvo in the Farragut commission battle was a letter signed by President Johnson, 31 senators, and 110 current and former representatives. Speculation was rampant about the nature of her friendship with her most powerful advocate, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman.

Finally, after many twists and turns, Ream won the commission. It stands today in downtown Washington, D.C.'s Farragut Square.

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