I’ve been a beachcomber since I was a little girl, walking the tideline to pick up shells and wave-polished glass. I’ve braided strands of sea grass into bracelets, thrown living starfish back into the ocean and gathered sand dollars by moonlight. However, one ocean treasure that has eluded me is a message in a bottle.
Sir John Everett Millais painted “Message from the Sea” in 1884 when he was 55 years old. A founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Millais had been the youngest student ever (at age 11) to enter the Royal Academy Schools. By the latter half of the 19th century, he was one of the wealthiest and most successful artists of his day.
The barefoot girl is obviously from a working class family, from her inexpensive, rumpled clothing to the basket strapped to her back for gathering seaweed or shellfish. Her lace edged cap reminds me of traditional Breton dress. Millais’ family lived in Brittany, France for a few years during his childhood, so perhaps he modeled her on the children he remembered from that region.
Did she find the bottle at low tide and break it open on the stone block where she is sitting? Perhaps the remains of a disused breakwater or pier, her seaweed-covered perch must be submerged for much of the day. Who threw the bottle off a ship, a fisherman, sailor or trader sending one last letter “home” before steaming away for distant ports? Or is it from young lovers sharing their passion with the world? Whoever the author, the language is French if a young Breton girl can read it.
Even today when we can connect with strangers on the internet and text our friends and family from every corner of the Earth, the idea of letting chance and the waves carry a handwritten message to someone unknown holds a powerful allure.
If you’d like to share this image with friends by more traditional mailing methods, cards featuring the painting — and other Ladies with Letters images — are available in the Post Whistle store on Zazzle.
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