Hide and Seek is one of my favorite paintings in The Phillips Collection. Notable for its restraint, it is a marvel of visual economy. Hide and Seek was not a typical work for Chase, who was known for his tendency to paint cluttered interiors. His studio was filled with curios from all corners of the world, including a white Russian wolfhound, two macaws, and a cockatoo. There are only four objects in Hide and Seek, and Chase makes each one count—a chair, a picture or mirror frame, a curtain, and a doorway or curtain behind which the young girl watches her playmate.
Chase may have been inspired by a painting with the same title by the French realist James Tissot, recently on view in the National Gallery of Art‘s From Impressionism to Modernism: The Chester Dale Collection.
The raised horizon line and asymmetrical composition reflect the influence of Japanese art, while the radical cropping of the child in the immediate foreground suggests the influence of photography and of Degas, who was an ardent collector of Japanese prints. Chase’s ability to conjure the feeling of an accidental moment was directly influenced by photography. Chase had photographs by Eadweard Muybridge in his collection as early as 1888, the same year he painted this work. Close observation reveals that the cropped figure closest to the viewer is clearly defined, while the rest of the painting is slightly out of focus as it would be in a photograph.
Although the children are the focal point of the composition, their faces are not visible, creating an aura of mystery. Absent our ability to connect with the children visually and emotionally, the viewer is left to confront the actual subject of the work–a void. Chase makes the so called “empty” space in the center of the composition sing. Painted in tones of persimmon, the activated space recalls compositions of Pierre Bonnard who said, “to begin a picture I always start with an empty space in the middle.”
Hide and Seek embodies a mystery. Although Duncan Phillips acquired the painting in 1923, he did not exhibit it in The Phillips Collection until the early 1950s. Phillips was known to show off new acquisitions proudly by hanging them in the museum shortly after they were purchased. Why did he wait decades to show this beautiful work by Chase? The story may be very personal. Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’s first child was a daughter, Mary Marjorie, born in 1922. Phillips may have bought this painting while imagining with pleasure his daughter playing hide and seek when she grew older. Mary Marjorie contracted encephalitis when she was several years old and, following the custom of the times, was institutionalized. Perhaps Duncan and Marjorie kept Hide and Seek at their home until the emotional valence of the painting had diminished, and they felt ready to share it with a public audience.