Hidden excitedly in "Hide and Seek" by William Merritt Chase at the Phillips Collection is a girl in shining curls. She doesn't know you're there. If she turned her golden head she'd see that she is being spied on, too.
Chase's proto-modernist genre scene, which was painted in Manhattan in 1888, plays another double game. Radical yet genteel, the picture is at once a fashionable depiction of the well-to-do at play -- and a feint at pure abstraction.
But only a feint. Chase (1849-1916), who wore a Vandyke beard and entertained extravagantly, was far too well-behaved to go all the way.
Still, despite its sugary narrative, "Hide and Seek" possesses a compositional grid as taut as one of Mondrian's, and its vast expanse of floor somehow points the way toward the darkly shimmering rectangles that would, in the next century, be painted by Mark Rothko.
The children tread lightly, the viewer does the same. The tall and weightless chair and the light-admitting curtain hardly touch the floor. They're on tiptoe, too.
-- Paul Richard
"Hide and Seek" cost $1,800 when Duncan Phillips bought it in 1925. The painting at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW, is on view in the first parlor.