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David and Art - Vinnie Ream

The story of the Naval hero and the woman who created his monument is one that's not very well known in the nation's capital.

You know I'm fond of saying that when you get into art, there's always something new to discover. Even if it's something that has been around for a while, if it's new to you, then it's new. Things are new to me too, every day. Things about which I find myself thinking, "I should've known that" or "How have I not heard about this?"

So it is with a statue I got to know pretty well in writing my last book about Admiral George Dewey. One of the most important influences on his life was an older naval officer named David Farragut. Farragut became massively famous for his role in the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864. It was there when he said to a nervous junior officer, "Damn the torpedoes, go ahead!"

Anyway, Farragut's fame as a hero of the Civil War resulted in him getting a square in Washington DC named for him. In that square, there's a big statue of him on top of a pedestal, telescope in hand, looking resolute. It's made from the melted-down propellors of his flagship during the war. It was dedicated in a big public celebration in 1881 attended by President James Garfield. The sculptor who created the statue was one of the most famous in the country at that point. And she was a woman.

Lavinia Ellen Ream, known as "Vinnie," was born in September 1847 in Madison, Wisconsin. She attended what is today Columbia College in Columbia, Missouri. In 1861, her family moved to Washington DC, and she got a job in the Post Office for $50 a month. In her spare time, she walked around the city looking at statues and sculptures.

Her most famous work is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building for which she received a commission in 1866-the first woman and the youngest person to get a federal art commission. In 1871, the finished statue was unveiled in the Capitol where it still stands today.

Suddenly famous, she was commissioned to sculpt the Admiral David Farragut monument in Farragut Square, Washington, D.C., for a whopping $20,000, double what she was paid for the Lincoln statue. It, too, is still there today, looking down sternly at people walking through the park, most of whom take no notice of the Admiral and his telescope.

Ream died in 1914 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. In a story that's way to long for our time here, Vinita Oklahoma is named for her. I've driven through there since I was little and never knew the town was named for a famous sculptor who happened to be a woman.

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David Smith, host of David and Art, is an American historian with broad interests in his field. He’s been at Baylor University since 2002 teaching classes in American history, military history, and cultural history. For eight years he wrote an arts and culture column for the Waco Tribune-Herald, and his writings on history, art, and culture have appeared in other newspapers from the Wall Street Journal to the Dallas Morning News.