During the late 1910s Charles Demuth painted a series of Cubist explorations of rooftops and trees that are direct precursors to his later precisionist masterpieces such as My Egypt, 1927 and Buildings Lancaster, 1930 (both: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). Painted in Bermuda, Provincetown, Massachusetts and finally, Lancaster, Pennsylvania these works are largely watercolors. In Rooftops, Provincetown, Demuth uses delicate planes of watercolor to create dynamic compositions that are simultaneously studies of color, form, light and texture.
Rooftops, Provincetown depicts an aerial view of varying building peaks, chimneys and tree branches. A skilled watercolorist, Demuth simultaneously controls and exploits the medium's liquidity to imbue the work with an evanescent quality. In contrast to earlier works, in which the artist used the aqueous medium more freely, in Rooftops, Provincetown each color is kept within the pencil barriers of its plane. The washes are a range of consistencies oscillating between the nearly opaque chocolate browns and brick reds of the chimneys to the fragile pinks and mauves of the buildings. Demuth blots some areas to create a mottled effect, and places grid lines in others to add texture to the composition. These variances create depth and complexity, suggesting the effects of light on the dynamic image.
Demuth employs color as well as line to define space. He uses pencil lines to define the different forms and fills them with diaphanous washes of varying intensity. He uses rectangular planes to create the structures and overlaps them. It is, however, the subtle variances of colors that comprise these planes--mauve, olive, brown, purple, brick red, gray--which differentiate them and create spatial relationships in the work. This creates a prismatic effect that is broadly reminiscent of works such as Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 1) (1911, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) by his friend and fellow artist Marcel Duchamp, yet the ethereality created by the diaphanous washes of watercolor is pure Demuth.
Shape is also central to Rooftops, Provincetown, which incorporates both the natural and man-made as the spindly tree branches weave throughout the buildings in the left half of the composition. The sinuous branches are the only curved forms in the composition contrasting with the hard-edged planes that define the rest of the space. This juxtaposition manifests the influence of Cézanne's watercolors on Demuth's work, "Cézanne's work offered Demuth a model for integrating angular forms with the kind of sensuous, organic shapes with which he had worked earlier. In this way he eased into Cubism, setting the biomorphic forms of trees and branches within a subtly shifting structure of ruler-drawn lines and planes." (B. Haskell, Charles Demuth, New York, 1987, p. 126)
The influence of Cézanne's watercolors are also evident in Demuth's use of the paper in his works from the mid-1910s onward. The composition in Rooftops, Provincetown floats on the paper, not extending to any edge as Demuth exploits his support for compositional effects. A marked departure from his earlier watercolors in which saturated color covered the entire sheet, he would continue to use bare paper throughout his career, predominantly in his still lifes of flowers and fruit. "Beginning with his Bermuda works in 1916...Demuth covered the paper or the canvas less and less and gave the background importance equal to the subject painted. His new style, later called "Precisionism," was merely his own method of combining what he found effective in the many new painterly elements and making them his own." (A.L. Eiseman, Charles Demuth, New York, 1982, p. 14)
Simultaneously refined and dynamic, Rooftops, Provincetown is exemplary of Demuth's ability to capture the nuances of light, form and color and to employ his mastery of watercolor to create a work that is both delicate and arresting.