Thursday, October 22, 2009


A recent drive home at dusk gave me a beautiful gift: a cat silhouetted in a square window. A perfect image. The cat was seated looking right, tail curled parallel to her body. She had thoughtfully centered herself inside the amber square of the window. The flash was a jewel in this night.

It started me thinking about silhouettes, those crisp designs that we link with 1950s' bedroom decor (the boy rolling a hoop and the curly-haired girl with tiered crinoline skirts, traipsing in ovals framed with coppery tape). They're the stark black shapes we tie to late fall: the arched cat, the grinning Jack o Lantern, the wide-eyed owl, the gliding bat. They're the portraits of folks like Jane Austen and George Washington.

The term "silhouette" has a silly synonym: disambiguation. Not sure I even want to figure out how that word works here. I'd rather just look at a definition: a silhouette is a view of an object or scene consisting of an outline and featureless center. The form gets its name from an 18th century finance minister, an unsavory guy named Etienne Silhouette who imposed severe economic demands on the French. He liked doing silhouette portraits so his name became linked with these designs, as well as with anything done cheaply.

When I think of silhouette portraits, I think that they must be minimally effective at capturing the likeness of a subject. But I'm wrong, according to a Stanford study that found that silhouettes are very good ways to extract accurate physical data about a person, data that won't be significantly altered by cosmetic changes and the impacts of aging.

Putting usefulness of silhouettes aside, I ask myself why the image of the cat in the window was so stunning. As I do, silhouettes march smoothly across memory's screen. In an Oregon pine forest one night, a great horned owl slid among the black lace of fir. We couldn't hear her at all as she embroidered a new design on the intricate net of needled branch against a deep navy sky. In a Montana apartment, an outline assumed to be an intruder stabbed terror into this single mom's heart. Against the beige talc of Owyhee sand, a delicate shape of long-tailed kangaroo rat mimed a lively jig for two desert campers. Above the jeweled disk of a high-mountain lake, the jagged torn silhouette of granite peak soared, shielding us from the deep descending night. From my bed, the shadowed dance of tree limbs has given me weather reports: it's breezy, it's windy, it's downright scary.

There are times, I think, when we really don't need all the detail of a scene. Maybe the outline is enough to tell us what we need to know. Maybe all those interior features are just fluff and we can make do with a silhouette, a disambiguation, after all. Maybe the magic of a scene can be exquisitely captured in black and white, in crisp line and background. It's a minimalist kind of thing. That's what the cat in the window that night taught me.


  1. What a wonderful post! There is something really evocative about silhouette art to me. Wonderful papercut silhouettes are among my favorite things. Do you remember the series of children's books that were in every elementary school library, that were biographies of famous people? Their covers were orange and the illustrations were silhouettes. I loved those books almost as much for the orange covers and silhouette art as for the stories.

  2. This lovely post took me back to when I was seven years old. I was in the hospital in Salt Lake. It was a very stormy night, but I swear I I saw couples dancing minuets as the wind blew through the leaves of the trees.

    I love your blog.