Lincoln and Farragut
September 1893 — Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
When you so kindly invited me to speak upon myself, my work, and my illustrious subjects, Lincoln and Farragut, you opened to me so wide a field that, even if I did not stray from it, I might wander very far. As for myself, my work was ever, and is now, most fascinating to me. It has never lost any of its charm, and I can not see a block of marble or the modeling clay without a quicker throb of the heart. When the war commenced I was away down south on the Louisiana line, and after its lurid fires lit up the whole country my dear mother, with great difficulty, made her way through the lines and brought her children to Washington. My father, although much of an invalid from rheumatism, was one of the improvised guard around the Capitol, and from its commanding dome, where I had so often climbed to see the rosy sunrise, the “smoke of the battle afar off” was to be seen rising from the Virginia valleys, and the cannonading from “Bull Run” resounded through the air. Time rolled along, the horrors of war developing each day, when a few months before its close, as I was walking along Pennsylvania avenue, I met Major James S. Rollins, of Columbia, Boone County, Mo., who represented that district in Congress, in which I had formerly attended school, saying that he had been looking for me and had promised the president of Christian College to send him a picture of his little pupil, Vinnie Ream. He walked with me to our home, and there arranged that my mother and myself should go with him to Clark Mills’ studio at the Capitol, where a bust should be made of me to send to Christian College. As soon as I saw the sculptor handle the clay, I felt at once that I, too, could model and, taking the clay, in a few hours I produced a medallion of an Indian chief’s head, which so pleased the major that he carried it away and placed it on his desk in the House of Representatives. It attracted the attention of Reverdy Johnson, Thaddeus Stevens, General Morehead and many other of his colleagues, who, learning from him that it was modeled in a few hours by a young girl who had never been in a studio before, generously encouraged me to try again — Senator Nesmith, of Oregon, being my first subject. In rapid succession I modeled likenesses in clay of Senator Yates, Senator Sherman, Senator Voorhees, General Morehead, Parson Brownlow, General Custer, Thaddeus Stevens and the venerable Frank P. Blair. These kind men became my friends, and warmly interested in my progress. As a plant thrives beneath the sunlight, so I throve under their generous influence, and worked early and late that they should not be disappointed in their little protégée. They decided to give me an order for a bust in marble, and I chose President Lincoln for my subject. Senator Nesmith, General Morehead and Reverdy Johnson called upon the President, asking him to sit to me. At first he positively declined, saying he “was tired sitting for his likeness, and couldn’t imagine why any one wanted to make a likeness of such a homely man.” Finding him firm in his refusal they arose to leave, Senator Nesmith remarking, “This will be a disappointment to the young artist who selected you as her subject. She is a little western girl, born in Wisconsin. She is poor, and has talent, and we intend to encourage her in this work, in which we feel she will excel, by giving her an order for a bust in marble.” Almost before Senator Nesmith had finished, President Lincoln turned abruptly, and in a high key exclaimed: “She is poor, is she? Well, that’s nothing against her. Why don’t you bring that girl up here? I’ll sit to her for my bust;” and so it was, the great heart which vanity could not unlock opened with the sympathy that recalled to him his own youth; his battle with poverty; his ambition; his early struggles. So it was that I, a little unknown sculptor, born in Wisconsin, and a stranger to fame, was allowed the privilege of modeling from life the features of this great man. When these gentlemen took me to the White House and presented me to Mr. Lincoln, his kind face lighting up, he exclaimed: “Why, this is the very same little girl who came to me last week and received permission from me to visit her rebel relative at the Old Capitol Prison! Why, we are old friends. Now, let’s measure and see which is the tallest;” and it was thus I was welcomed. Sometimes at these sittings his face wore that look of anxiety and pain which will come to one accustomed to grief. At other times he would have that far-away, dreamy look, which seemed to presage the tragic fate awaiting him; and again, those quiet eyes lighting up, a radiance almost Divine would suffuse the sunken cheeks, and the whole face would be illuminated with the impulse of some Divine purpose. Often he would go to the south window and, seated there, remain a long time with his face turned away; then, hastily brushing away the tears from his eyes, he would say, “I was thinking of Willie.” He was still suffering from the blow of that child’s death, while great affairs convulsed the nation, and he hardly dared to take the time for personal grief.
So lately had I seen and known President Lincoln, that I was still under the spell of his kind eyes and genial presence when the terrible blow of his assassination came and shook the civilized world. The terror, the horror, that fell upon the whole community has never been equaled. Terrible as this was, who can say that it was not the best for Lincoln’s fame that he died just then, for its measure was full? Yet in the trying years that followed he was sorely needed. Maturing late in life, he was at his best when struck down, and had in his heart and mind great reservoirs of usefulness. His hand of steel and heart of kindness had guided us safely so far through the dark waters, and our ablest mediator, he might, from his gentle, forgiving and humane nature, have evolved plans of peace and reconciliation which would have more quickly, more firmly and more closely bound the estranged ones together. But God planned this Universe, and “He doeth all things well,” though the Nation’s leader and the South’s best friend had been slain. He lay there, dead, in the rotunda of the Capitol, with white face and speechless lips, but mightier in death even than in life! The Nation bowed its head and wept! The voice of those who had maligned him was silent. A spell was laid upon the lips of men to do him reverence. He had been the best friend of the North and the best friend of the South. His zeal had been unflagging, his patriotism exalted above all thought of self. His power had been almost unbounded, and how had he used it? “With charity for all, with malice toward none.” He had sworn to protect the honor of the Government, and history will tell how well he kept that oath; and yet while he guarded the sanctuary of its honor with fire and with sword, he wept that any should suffer.
When, soon after, Congress appropriated money to erect a marble statue of the martyred President in the Capitol, it never occurred to me, with my youth and my inexperience, to compete for that great honor; but I was induced to place my likeness of him before the committee having the matter under consideration, and, together with many other artists–competitors for this work — I was called before this committee. I shall never forget the fear that fell upon me, as the chairman (the Hon. John H. Rice, of Maine, who had a kind heart, but a very stern manner) looked up through his glasses, from his seat at the head of the table, and questioned and cross-questioned me until I was so frightened that I could hardly reply to his questions: “How long had I been studying art?” and had I “ever made a marble statue?” My knees trembled and I shook like an aspen, and I had not enough presence of mind even to tell him that I had made the bust from sittings from life. Seeing my dire confusion, and not being able to hear my incoherent replies, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, and a request to Judge Marshall, of Illinois, to kindly see the young artist home! Once there, in the privacy of my own room, I wept bitter tears that I had been such an idiot as to try to compete with men, and remembering the appearance before that stern committee as a terrible ordeal before unmerciful judges, I promised myself it should be my last experience of that kind.
Judge then of my surprise and delight when I learned that, guided by the opinion of Judge David Davis, Senator Trumbull, Marshal Lamon, Sec. O. H. Browning, Judge Dickey, and many others of President Lincoln’s old friends, that I had produced the most faithful likeness of him, they had awarded the commission to me — the little western sculptor. The Committee on Mines and Mining tendered me their room in the Capitol, in which to model my statue, because it was next to the room of Judge David Davis, and he could come in daily and aid me with his friendly criticisms. His comfortable chair was kept in readiness. He came daily, and suggesting “a little more here — a little on there — more inclining of the bended head — more angularity of the long limbs,” he aided me in my sacred work by his encouraging words and generous sympathy. I had approached it with reverence, and with trembling hands had taken the proportions of the figure from the blood-stained garments President Lincoln had worn on that last and fearful night; and Judge Davis, a man whose heart was as great as his stature, was deeply interested in the statue of Lincoln, whose memory he loved. Friends flocked around Judge Davis. He was the lode-star that drew them to my studio. During those years which I spent in the Capitol, modeling the statue, I was thus thrown constantly with men prominent in public life. With Judge Davis as the central figure, many were the brilliant and gifted men who clustered around. Senators McDougall, Trumbull, Yates, Conness, Nesmith, Morton (of Indiana), Proctor Knott, Ebon C. Ingersoll, Samuel J. Randall, Mr. Windom, and indeed almost all of the senators and members were deeply interested in the statue of Lincoln, and were constant visitors at the studio. Friend and foe gathered there with a common interest–the success of the work. Old feuds were forgotten, and they met on neutral ground — some on friendly terms who had not spoken to each other for years. What good friends they were to me! How true! Only for their sympathetic kindness, I would never have had the heart to take up and carry on the work, which was herculean for my fragile shoulders. Time has not dimmed the memory of their kindness, and I lay this tribute of gratitude at their feet.
In the bright and rambling discussions of men and things which took place in my studio there were told many tales of the war — its privations, its hardships and sufferings — by the gallant soldiers who came to see how the statue was developing. Some came on crutches, and told of how father and son, brother and brother, had met upon the battle-field, only to die in each other’s arms. I heard stories of prison life, of men who were shot to the heart at Shiloh or perished in the Wilderness; of men who went down at Antietam, fell at Winchester, or marched with Sherman “from Atlanta to the Sea.” Gettysburg was often mentioned, and then, like a sacred poem intoned upon the organ, came the memory of Lincoln’s inspired words upon that blood-stained field. The studio, with its circular walls and high arched ceilings, was lighted up by a huge fire-place, the last one left at the Capitol of the olden time. Alas! now unfortunately destroyed. It occupied one entire side of the room, and was kept blazing with great logs, six feet or more in length. It was supported on each side by marble statues, and so fascinating that no wonder the old soldiers lingered there. It was their camp-fire, and as the glow from the blazing hearth lighted up the clay image, they remembered with emotion the shout that went up from the mountains and rang in the valleys as they responded to his call, “We are coming, Father Abraham.” He had been a father to them all, and they mourned him not only as a great man and wise ruler, but as a friend and father. Cabinet ministers and diplomats, journalists and authors all gathered there; such men as Chase and Holt, Blaine and Stockton, Field and Miller, Crosby S. Noyes and Gen. Lew Wallace, Deems and Sunderland, Sheridan and Sherman, Grant and Farragut.
I was generally a silent listener as these men conversed, but what they said made deep impression, for ever on their lips was the name of Lincoln. Many stories touched me deeply, but none like the story of his life. Oh, the pain, the pathos of it all! You are all familiar with this story — I have told you how it came to me.
The model finished, I went to Italy with my parents to transfer it to marble. We remained some time in London, and much enjoyed the sessions of the House of Parliament, where we heard John Bright speak. At Paris we remained three months, and there I had the great privilege of daily instruction in drawing from Leon Bonnat, the eminent French painter. Gustave Dorè became my warm friend, and presented me with a painting by his own hand, writing the dedication upon the margin: “Offert à Miss Vinnie Ream de la part de son affectionne Collègue G. Dorè.” Mr. Washburn was our Minister there and showed us every attention. Perè Hyacinthe became our friend, and we had the pleasure of again meeting General and Mrs. Fremont. Journeying on through Switzerland, we enjoyed together its snowy mountain peaks and charming valleys. At Munich we became acquainted with Germany’s great painter, Kaulbauch, who was even then passing away from the people he had so endeared to him by his genius. We sailed together up the Rhine and around the Lake of Lucerne, by the Lake of Como, we visited the Castle of Challou, and paid our tribute to England’s son of genius. At Venice we floated over the Lagoons together and wandered through the galleries, and by the great Square of St. Mark, to see the pigeons fed. At Florence we lingered long among its priceless gems of art, and then, journeying on to Rome, rented a plano, a floor in an old palace, and went to keeping house. It was in the Vicola Marsomti, and a studio for myself was selected on the Via San Basilio, adjoining the studio of my good friend — the gifted painter — George P. Healey. Oh, those hours in Rome! Those days in Rome–those sunny days on the Campaigna! Those golden hours when we made pilgrimages to the picturesque and historical towns which make all Italy a gallery. I can hear those laughing waters that come down the steeps, and see the gloomy catacombs, the sunny slopes, the ancient aqueducts and frowning ruins–the peasant homes and princely palaces. They were with me — my parents — oh, happy thought, and what pleasant memories dwell amid the scenes of our wanderings! They are fresh in my memory–the Falls of Trivoli, the blue waters of the Bay of Naples, the ruins of Pompeii, and the crater of Vesuvius. I can never forget those charmed days with their precious associations.
Through Bishop Domenec, the Bishop of Pittsburg, we presented our letters to Cardinal Antonelli. We were granted an audience with the Pope, and his blessing; and when Cardinal Antonelli found that I was making the statue of Abraham Lincoln for my government, he became my warm and devoted friend, corresponding with me constantly after I returned to this country until his death. He sat to me in my studio for his likeness, and when I left Rome presented me with three large and handsome stone cameos–one the head of Christ, and the others heads of the Virgin Mary — all three exquisitely cut, rare and valuable works of art set in etruscan gold; all made in the workshop of the Vatican. Healey painted a picture of myself in peasant costume, which he presented to my mother, and many were the lovely and valuable souvenirs with which our friends in Rome enriched us. As soon as I arrived in Rome and selected my studio, I had my model of Lincoln placed at the proper height, and, draping the wall behind with two large national flags, invited the artists in Rome to see it. Among the visitors who came were Sig. Luigi Majoli, the most gifted of the Italian sculptors, and Sig. Pietro Regnoli, his friend, a brilliant man of letters. They became my warm friends, and were really brothers to me in that far off land. The gentle Emelie Regnoli became my sister, and my parents loved them all. All the artists, American and foreign, received me kindly, among them Randolph Rogers and Mr. Storey. Harriet Hosmer, who was the pioneer among women sculptors, was most generous. The painter, Healey, was my neighbor and my friend, and as the golden days passed by, and the shadows lengthened, when it became too dark in my studio to work I would leave my modeling and go to his studio, and after helping him wash his brushes and put away his things, we would wend our way homeward together through the Italian twilight. Rossetti and Tadoline, the Italian sculptors, were my good friends, and Buchanan Reed the poet-painter, kindly dedicated some verses to me.
Through some letters of introduction given me by Mrs. Cleveland (the sister of Horace Greeley) I met many young priests, among them one who was a favorite pupil of Liszt. When I told him I envied him his opportunity of knowing so intimately such a man of genius, he exclaimed: “You, too, shall know him. Come with me — your parents and yourself. He plays this afternoon at the old convent place where he now lives. Come!” We were soon ready, and when we reached the convent grounds found the street in front crowded with carriages. As we entered the vast saloon every available place seemed filled with people who had gathered there to hear him play. At the far end of the room Liszt was seating himself at the piano–a picture he was indeed, with his fine features and slender figure, long black robe and snowy locks. Tiptoeing softly, we followed Don Zeferino, our young guide, and disappearing for a moment, he returned, bringing from some hidden recess seats for my parents, and then, motioning me to follow him he placed a chair almost immediately back of the piano at Liszt’s right hand. The wonderful magician swept his slender hands over the keys, fascinating all who heard, and with tremulous vibrations touched some tender chords with such a spell that I was deeply affected. The tears which I could not repress rose to my eyes, and being so near, and fearful of making the slightest interruption, I dared not raise my hand to brush them away. The great artist had felt the spell he was exercising over me. He noticed my emotion, and playing softly with the left hand, he reached his right hand over and laid it for an instant tenderly on mine. We needed no introduction. We understood each other, and when he had finished playing and all rushed up to congratulate him and thank him. I waited silently by to try and speak; but he offered me his arm, and as we promenaded with the rest down the old convent’s halls, he said, “You need not speak. I understand you and you understand me,” and during all my stay in Rome this great master was a constant visitor at my studio, and my warm and devoted friend.
All the while my work went on, and several ideal pieces, among them “The West” and “America,” were under way. The day from early morning was given to work, hard work, and at 4 o’clock sometimes my Italian friends–the sculptor Majoli, and the scholar Regnoli, with the ladies of Signor Regnoli’s family, would come, and gathering up my parents and myself, take us with them to the open-air theater or to some one or other of the numberless places of interest in and about the great city whose every inch is filled with monuments and memoirs of the illustrious dead.
These memorable days flew by on golden wings, and the time came for us to tear these new ties apart and sail for home. When the Lincoln statue in marble arrived in Washington, the Secretary of the Interior, accompanied by Judge David Davis, Senator Trumbull, and other old friends of President Lincoln, inspected and accepted the statue on behalf of the United States Government. The day was then set for its formal unveiling in the rotunda of the Capitol. The ceremony took place at night and the whole Capitol was brilliantly illuminated, the rotunda gayly decorated from floor to dome with the flag Lincoln had loved so well. All the officers of the government, its generals and ministers, appeared in full dress to do honor to the occasion. The marble statue was elevated to a proper height and surrounded with a platform draped with flags, for the President, the speakers and the families of those most nearly interested. The statue was completely enveloped in a great silk flag, and when Judge Davis, Lincoln’s friend, drew the golden cord which confined it, unveiling the statue to public view amid the waving of banners and the sound of trumpets, a great shout went up from the multitude. Then glowing tributes to President Lincoln fell from the eloquent lips of Senator Matt Carpenter, Senator Cullom of Illinois, and the other distinguished orators who had been selected to speak. The great dome rang with his praises, and thrilled by the eloquence and passion of some of these utterances, sobs sometimes broke upon the air, and wails of sorrow. When the ceremony was over, the audience thought of the artist, and called for her. Senator Matt Carpenter made his way to my seat upon the platform, and taking my hand, led me out before them, but I could only bow my thanks, my voice was too full of tears to speak in recognition of the cheers and flowers that greeted me. And so the people and the old-time friends of Abraham Lincoln expressed their satisfaction with my work.
It had been indeed a labor of love, not without its trials, but well rewarded by its final triumph. How this verdict was afterward confirmed in giving into my hands the commission for a statue of the immortal Farragut, I would like to tell you, but there is not the time now. This night when the Lincoln statue was unveiled in the rotunda of the Capitol was the supreme moment of my life. I had known and loved the man! My country had loved him and cherished his memory. In tears the people had parted with him. With shouts of joy and acclamations of affection they had received his image in the marble. Upon the very spot where a few years before they had gathered in sorrow to gaze upon his lifeless body lying there in state while a nation mourned, they had gathered again to unveil his statue. “The marble is the resurrection,” say the old sculptors, and now the dead had arisen to live forever in the hearts of the people whom he loved so well.
Source: The Congress of Women Held in the Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U.S.A., 1893, ed. Mary Kavanaugh Oldham Eagle (Chicago: Monarch book Company) 1894, pp. 603-608.