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Great Works: Hide and Seek (1888), William Merritt Chase

Phillips collection, Washington

The story and the picture are not always friends. Some authors fear being illustrated. (Henry James was one.) An image is usually an imposition. It will fill out details the text never mentions. It will make things explicit and specific when the text has left them suggestive. An image is altogether excessive, extraneous.

Picture-makers might equally fear storytelling. (Poems about paintings are an especially irksome genre.) A verbal version of an image will inevitably be a distortion. It will omit crucial elements and aspects of the scene. It will devisualise. It will make things explicit and specific that the picture has left uncertain. It will do its best to translate the picture into a tale.

Still, some pictures seem ripe for storifying. William Merritt Chase's Hide and Seek is one. It already looks like an illustration to a story. It could surely be turned back into one with little loss. But it's also a picture, and what the picture tells us is something that a verbal version could never convey.

Its story itself is easily told. Two girls (there's no need to assume more than two) are playing hide-and-seek in a large apartment. One is in hiding. The other's still seeking. At the moment in question, the seeker is creeping towards a drawn curtain, with a careful or nervous tread, soon to draw it back.

The room is in semi-darkness, but it isn't late. It's probably blazing noon. This curtain is drawn right across a window or French window, and bright day just leaks around its edges. And this bay of contained light is where the seeker suspects the hider is concealed. But on the other side of the room, behind another curtain, is where she really lurks. She peeps out, and keeping still, watches her seeker. What next?

That's the action of Hide and Seek, and this description is perfectly true to the picture, so far as it goes. It gives us a rich drama to imagine. In a game of hide-and-seek, there's fear on all sides. The hider fears being found. The seeker fears making a find (there's the fright of a sudden discovery) and also fears being secretly observed. Ultimately there's the fear that seeker will end up at a loss, and hider will end up unfound, and both helplessly alone. The point of the game is to make all the players feel like strangers in a familiar place.

But this story, with all its potential, reveals very little of what the picture's viewer actually sees. Try this test. Put Chase's image out of your mind. Take the scenario as outlined above, and on that basis do your own picture. It's possible but it's improbable that you would produce anything like this scene. That's because the scenario sticks to the subject. It gives you the story, but not the picture-story – the story as told by the picture, with its particular point of view, staging, cropping and composition.

So tell the picture-story of Hide and Seek. A good way to begin would be to imagine the two figures taken away. What you're left with is the play's bare set: an empty room and a surprisingly rectangular design. The hider's curtain is a narrow vertical strip, hanging from top to bottom down the picture's left edge. To the right, there are the floor and the far wall, divided by a horizontal wainscot. The other curtain, the one fringed with light, is an oblong section at the right hand end of the wall.

Figureless, the whole picture is composed of oblong areas. This makes you conscious of its spaces – for example, how the floor is a dark vacancy taking up the largest part of the canvas. But this rectangular composition also indicates that the room is oriented to face straight out, to the picture's front. The wall is seen flat-on. The chair against this wall is seen head-on. The scene is directly aimed at the viewer. It makes you aware of yourself, the viewer, looking at it.

Now put the two figures back. They are like intruders. They introduce two non-squared shapes. Another use of the scene's geometry is to embody the girls' strangeness in this situation. Those open oblong spaces also display clearly their relative scales and positions. The seeker, on the far side of the floor, is a small and distant figure. We see the whole of her. The hider appears at the very front of the picture, much nearer and bigger. We see only her head and shoulder. She leans in from off-picture, to peep round the strip of curtain.

The seeker and her watcher are an echo, almost a repeat, of one another. Both are blonde-haired, white-frocked. Both are seen from behind and faceless. Both turn their eyes and their bodies the same way. They make a diagonal of attention that runs across the picture. But this affinity only stresses their differences.

They gaze the same way. The hider can see the seeker, while the seeker looks for the hider elsewhere, looking in the wrong place and what's more in the very opposite direction. The seeker is entirely visible, an exposed figure, while the hider is unseen and safe from detection. She could slip back behind her curtain. She could slip (it's suggested) out of the picture's frame itself.

In all these ways, the picture dramatises the basic story. The story may imply a power relationship, but it's the picture-story, using pictorial devices, that firmly puts the hider in a commanding role. And then there's another uniquely pictorial factor at work, a third party in the situation: the viewer. Looking at the scene, we are surely with the hider, and watching the hapless seeker along with her. We take her point of view and her part. Our presence strengthens her position further.

Perhaps. Except that we also compromise her position. We overlook her. We watch her from behind her back, just as she watches the other girl. We have them both in our sights, and their relationship as well. The room, remember, facing to the front, is specifically oriented for our point of view, not for either of them. We are the master observer. In the game of looking, we dominate the field.

And yet imagine a further step back. Now that the viewer has been included in the picture's story, now that a relay of looking has been established – seeker, watcher, viewer – why not more? Why not a fourth party, another pair of eyes, unseen, but observing us? Now we're fully part of the game of Hide and Seek.

In the act of our viewing we are implicated in the picture's action. We find ourselves both watcher and watched. It's true that written stories can do a lot with "point of view". But this particular effect is one that only a picture can achieve, because only a picture has a real viewer who can then get drawn into its story of looking. There is something just behind our backs, and we shudder.

About the artist

William Merritt Chase (1849-1916) was a dandified and influential New York painter. He had trained in Europe and was in contact with Euro-American virtuosos like Whistler and Sargent. He brought the recent style news across the Atlantic. He painted in a dashing, flashy manner – portraits, park views and hundreds of still lifes with fish. He founded his own art school and taught some of the leading US artists of the next generation: Georgia O'Keefe, for example, and the painters of the Precisionist movement, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth (inter-war precursors of pop art). 'Hide and Seek' is an untypically clever and spooky scene.