I Miss William Merritt Chase’s Hide and Seek

The Phillips Collection galleries have been dark and empty and our staff and visitors have been missing our beloved collection. In this series we will highlight artworks that the Phillips staff have really been missing lately. Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art Vesela Sretenović on why she misses William Merritt Chase’s Hide and Seek (1888).

This is one of my favorite works at The Phillips Collection, and I know I am not the only one! It may come as a surprise that the contemporary art curator would pick a 19th-century painting among all the other works in the collection, including many by living artists with whom she has collaborated and whose art has entered the collection. But singling out a favorite artist is like choosing a favorite child—impossible!

William Merritt Chase, Hide and Seek, 1888, Oil on canvas, 27 5/8 x 35 7/8 in., The Phillips Collection, Acquired 1923

Chase’s Hide and Seek speaks to me personally, especially now. It’s about the hidden, the unrevealed, the unspoken; it is about ideas behind appearances, and about the invisible outside the visible. I’ve been grappling with these concepts ever since my first undergraduate paper, “Ontology in Ancient Greek Art,” and obviously still do.

Now “hiding” at home (and working remotely), I miss the painting; I miss passing by it on my walks through the galleries, or when rushing from meeting to meeting and going from one building to another. I like seeing it most when it is hung in the East Parlor gallery in the Phillips House, in a corner across from the fireplace. It feels like it belongs there—by portraying an intimate interior with children at play it simply becomes part of the House’s domestic setting. Although often in a hurry, I would pause in front of the work and take a quick peak, wave at the girls hiding, and then continue on. That was my own private play. And this element of teasing or playfulness is one of the main reasons I love the work so much. But of course that’s not all—there is so much more . . . a sense of mystery, suspense, and the unresolved . . .

With its silky surface of reddish and brown hues dissolved in light, a blurry scene out of focus and oddly cropped, featuring girls hiding behind heavy curtains, the composition looks flat, empty, almost eerie. It contains quietude and creates anticipation. And the title itself only underlies its hidden meaning.

All of this resonates with me today more than ever before, as we are living this pandemic not with eyes closed but with our faces covered, and facing not only deadly health conditions but also a deep social, political, and moral crises. Who is “hiding” and what are we “seeking” now? What, if anything, can be truthfully revealed and openly shared? Looking at the painting, I see a dash of light coming through the heavy curtain . . . I am awaiting the light at the end of the tunnel. I know it’s there. Hide and Seek will be the first painting I seek upon my return to the museum.

2 thoughts on “I Miss William Merritt Chase’s Hide and Seek

  1. My grandfather painted scenes which he thought were beautiful and charming with no hidden meaning behind them. They don’t have to be analyzed just enjoyed.

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