Our final discussion of the Lincolns of Washington, DC takes us to the United States Capitol. It is fitting that we do this because after all, it was here that Lincoln first arrived from Illinois to take a seat in Congress in 1847, and it was here in 1861 and again in 1865 that Lincoln took the oath of office as our 16th President. Finally, it was here that the body of Lincoln would lie in state after his assassination in April, 1865, before he made the final trip back home to Illinois.
Certainly, of the multitude of places in the District imbued with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, the two most important are the White House and the Capitol. And of the many works of art in the Capitol referring to Lincoln, there are two that stand out: Gutzon Borglum’s bust of Lincoln, and Vinnie Ream’s full portrait statue of Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation.
Gutzon Borglum: “Heroic Head”
This work is forty inches high and was the gift of Eugene Meyer, Jr in 1908 when it was accepted by the Joint Committee on the Library. Its current location is the Crypt level of the Capitol.
Gutzon Borglum was one of the foremost sculptors of his time, with his works scattered around the country, however, he is best-known for carving Mount Rushmore (which was completed by Borglum’s son, Lincoln). We see a similarity to Rushmore in Borglum’s “Heroic Head.” Just as the likenesses of the Presidents seem to emerge from the rock of Mount Rushmore, here, Lincoln’s likeness appears to emerge from the block of marble. Another point: Borglum carved this piece directly from the marble, rather than first making a model. In this case, he preferred carving from the “raw” marble because he felt it would allow him to convey an informal view of the President’s personality, rather than the stiffly posed, formal pieces of sculpture as we often see.
The bust was a great success, admired by many visitors, including Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln. It was popular enough that a mold was taken that produced a number of copies for places that included the White House and Lincoln’s memorial/tomb in Illinois.
In case you’re visiting DC, another of Borglum’s sculptures can be found on Massachusetts Avenue, at Sheridan Circle. It is the marvelous equestrian statue of General Phil Sheridan as he arrived on the Civil War battlefield of Cedar Creek in 1864.
Vinnie Ream: Abraham Lincoln
Although this statue of Lincoln is typical of the many full-standing statues around the country, THIS statue is unique. It was the first commission by the US Government given to a woman artist. That woman was Lavinia “Vinnie” Ream.
The marble statue is almost seven feet tall and currently stands in the Capitol Rotunda. Lincoln’s countenance is that of someone deep in thought, an expression well-known to the public especially during the Civil War. In his right hand is, perhaps, the reason for the serious, determined, expression – Lincoln is holding his Emancipation Proclamation.
Ream dressed Lincoln in layers, giving him the topcoat that he wore to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, (the night he was shot by John Wilkes Booth), and with an expansive cloak that drapes over his right shoulder. The cloak has fallen off Lincoln’s left shoulder and he has gathered that side of the cloak under his left arm as he grasps the rest with his left hand. Ream has extended Lincoln’s right foot off the front of the base, making it look as if he is about to step off the pedestal and walk out of the room.
The Government, in choosing Vinnie Ream to create such an important work, created quite a controversy. It’s an interesting coincidence that the selection of the sculptors for the two earliest works commemorating Lincoln in the District were controversial. Remember in Part I of this blog we discussed the Lincoln statue at Judiciary Square. For that memorial, the selection of Lot Flannery, the “Irish stonecutter,” got people complaining loudly!
At the time she received the commission, 1866, it was just one year after Lincoln’s death, and Vinnie was only eighteen years old. But, since she was a woman – a young, attractive woman, for that matter – granting her the commission caused many raised eyebrows and indignant and dismissive comments. The fact that she was on familiar, friendly terms with various members of Congress didn’t help either! But even though Vinnie was a known, talented sculptor, more important, she had proven herself to be a determined young woman who could – and would – talk her way into many an official’s office.
Earlier, she had charmed the President himself into sitting for her while she created a bust of his likeness. She was nearly done with the clay model of the portrait bust when Lincoln was assassinated. Devastated by his death, Ream spoke affectionately of Lincoln, noting that he allowed her to create the sculpture after he found that she was poor — and he knew that a bust of the President would give her some recognition (and income!) as an artist. Look closely at the portrait bust — it appears that Ream has dressed Lincoln in a similar-type cloak that she’ll include in her later statue.
Vinnie Ream might have been a strong-willed young woman, but the social restrictions of the day invaded her life when she married Lieutenant Richard Hoxie, who curtailed her artistic activities. But even as she served in the role of wife and mother, Vinnie still continued to create notable sculpture. Two additional pieces stand in the Capitol: statues of Governor Kirkwood from Iowa, and Sequoyah, of the Cherokee Nation. Also, if you’re walking around DC, visit Farragut Square and you’ll see the statue of Naval hero, Admiral David G Farragut, another memorial by Vinnie Ream.
These Lincolns end our survey of the Lincolns of Washington, DC. Next, we’re going to return to LaFayette Park and discuss one of the most storied sites that sits right across from the White House. Join us again as we take a look at the site of the Washington Club.
- Art in the United States Capitol, Architect of the Capitol
- History of the United States Capitol, Glenn Brown
- Library of Congress, Photograph Division