Some of the most important people in the world have trouble getting even a few minutes of the president’s time. But in 1864, 17-year-old Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream managed to steal half an hour with Abraham Lincoln every day—for five months.
Ream made a name for herself as an artist at a young age. Word of the teen prodigy’s painting prowess quickly spread, and in 1863, Missouri Congressman James Rollins introduced her to sculptor Clark Mills. Through Mills, Ream discovered her talents included molding clay.
After creating small, medallion-sized likenesses of General Custer and many Congressmen, including Thaddeus Stevens, several senators commissioned Ream to create a marble bust—and this was just over a year after she had picked up the skill. The senators allowed Ream to choose her subject, and she picked the president—Abraham Lincoln.
Ream's friends in the Senate personally asked Lincoln to pose for the sculpture, but he declined. After hearing that she was a struggling artist from a Midwestern background not dissimilar to his own, however, Lincoln relented. “He granted me sittings for no other reason than that I was in need,” she later wrote. “Had I been the greatest sculptor in the world I am quite sure I would have been refused.”
Not only did the president agree to the sitting, he gave her a half-hour of his time every day for five months—no small sum of time for a man in such demand. “It seemed that he used this half-hour as a time for relaxation, for he always left instructions that no one was to be admitted during that time,” Ream said. “He seemed to find a strange sort of companionship in being with me, although we talked but little.” He occasionally talked about his son Willie, who had died two years before. The stories sometimes moved him to tears, and he told Vinnie that she reminded him of Willie. Lincoln "never told a funny story to me. He rarely smiled," Ream later recalled.
After Lincoln's fateful night at Ford's Theatre, Congress hired Ream to create a memorial statue of the fallen president, making her the youngest artist—and the first woman—to receive a commission from the U.S. government.
Though she had already proved that she could create a remarkable likeness of Lincoln in bust form, not everyone on the commission was convinced she would be up to the task of sculpting a full-length version. “Having in view the youth and inexperience of Miss Ream, and I will go further, and say, having in view her sex, I shall expect a complete failure in the execution of this work,” Senator Jacob Merritt Howard said.
But Ream had the last laugh: Her work still graces the Capitol Rotunda today.
This article originally ran in 2016.