Artifacts at Riel House

Riel House National Historic Site

Highlights from the collection

Riel House National Historic Site is located in the St. Vital area in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The house and yard are commemorated because of their connection to Louis Riel (1844-1885) and Métis history in Manitoba. Though Louis Riel himself never lived in the house, after he was hanged for high treason his body lay in state in the living room for two days in December 1885. The Riel-Lagimodière family moved there in 1864 and descendants of the Riel family lived there until 1969. The plot of land, which was originally a long narrow strip reaching the Red River, also commemorates the history of Métis river lots.

There are 846 artifacts on site at Riel House, and these together with the help of historical interpreters, offer visitors a chance to experience life as it was for the Riel-Lagimodière Family in 1886.

Broken statuette of St. Joseph (reproduction)
Small broken white statue of St. Joseph. Head of the statue is missing; a carpenter’s square in his left hand.       

Maker of replica: Parks Canada Conservation Department (maker of original unknown)
Date: 1980 (Date of original 19th c.)
Media: Maraglass Epoxy (original object porcelain)
Dimensions: 11 cm (h) x 3.8 cm (w)
Registration number: X.80.3.12-.13

Location: Living room

This white palm-sized statuette of St. Joseph is a reproduction of one that is owned by the St. Boniface Museum. According to legend, one day when Riel was praying in his cell after he had been arrested, the statue fell off a shelf and broke. He took this to be an omen of bad things to come.

The original statue is Parian. Parian porcelain was used in the 19th century to cast small figures, busts, and occasionally other stoneware such as vases or jugs. The medium was useful because it allowed for mass production and affordable prices, but the final appearance looked like carved marble. Parks Canada’s reproduction – made from Maraglass Epoxy and then coloured white – was cast from the original statue in 1980. It is meant for interpretive use and it is currently on display at Riel House. Louis Riel came from a Catholic Métis household and the original statue belonged to his family.

The fact that this statue is a representation of Joseph is also significant: Riel and the Catholic community at Red River recognized St. Joseph as the primary patron saint of the Métis people. Among Catholics St. Joseph is also identified as the patron saint of Canada, immigrants, fathers, working people, and a variety of other social groups and places. In religious painting and sculpture saints are typically recognizable from specific attributes and physical traits. Joseph, the husband of Mary, was a carpenter. Though this statue is headless, St. Joseph is recognizable here by the carpenter’s square that he holds in his left hand.

Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs (Print)
Lithograph depicting the Virgin Mary with her hands clasped in front of her. She wears a blue robe and her heart is superimposed in the foreground with seven daggers protruding from it. Lithograph prior to conservation work; shows some staining due to water and light damage.

Artist: Unknown
Medium: Lithograph (print)
Date: 1870
Dimensions: 54.4 (h) x 40.3 (w) cm
Registration number: X.79.204.1

Location: Living room

Handwritten inscription by Sara Riel:

[To my dear and well-loved mother, may Our Lady of Sorrows console you for the absence of your missionary daughter, through her sacrifice grant you long and happy days!]

(Original in French: A ma chére et bien aimé maman, que notre mère des douleurs vous console de l’absence de votre fille missionaire, par son sacrifice vous accord de longs et heureux jours!)

This hand-coloured lithograph, Notre Dame des Sept Douleurs (Our Lady of Seven Sorrows), was given to Louis Riel’s mother, Julie Lagimodière (1819-1906), by his sister Sara Riel (1848-1883) on June 18, 1871. Sara Riel was a religious sister in the order of the Grey Nuns, and was stationed at Ile à La Crosse. The lithograph has a handwritten note from Sara to her mother sending her love and expressing her hope that the print of the Madonna of Sorrows will be a source of consolation to her own mother. Such small prints, paintings, and illustrations of Christian saints and martyrs have traditionally played an important role in private Catholic devotional life. The presentation of the Virgin Mary as the Madonna of Sorrows is one of many recurrent pictorial traditions used for the portrayal of Mary. The colour in the print was added by hand, and, in keeping with iconographical tradition that is centuries old, the Virgin Mary is shown wearing blue. You may notice that the daggers and heart appear to be on the right side of her body rather than the left. This is because like all other printmaking methods, lithograph production results in a mirror image of the artist’s original design.

When this lithograph was acquired in the 1980s, it had light and water damage. Parks Canada has taken steps to preserve this valuable cultural resource. The print was cleaned with polyvinyl acetate, then deacidified and bleached to help remove staining. In 2013, the object was carefully cleaned and then sealed into its frame with Art Sorb – a desiccant that maintains the relative humidity within the frame at 50%. UV-filtering Plexiglas was placed on the front of the piece to protect it from further light damage. These conservation steps will help to preserve this work for future generations while also making it possible to keep the object on display for visitors.

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