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100 Highlights
of the MFAH
Take a tour through some of the most significant objects in the MFAH collections. On these pages, you can browse 100 highlights from collections throughout the institution. Then visit the Museum in person to discover your own favorites.
© 2010 The Arshile Gorky Foundation / The Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
American, born Armenia, 1904 - 1948
Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia
c. 1933–34
Oil on canvas mounted onto panel

36 x 47 7/8 inches

The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Museum purchase with funds provided by the
Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund

Arts of North America

A somber still-life abstraction, Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia has long been recognized as among Arshile Gorky’s masterpieces. The juxtaposition of textured and flat surfaces, and matte and glossy passages, imparts a great liveliness to the surface, creating a perfect counterbalance to the dark tones of the painting.

This work is the only painting and final piece in a series of more than 40 drawings Gorky produced from 1930 to 1934. The first sketches of the series were based on Paolo Uccello’s 15th-century panel The Profanation of the Host, echoing its fractured space and exaggerated perspective. As the series progressed, Gorky turned his attention to more concrete details, and in particular he chose to isolate and elaborate upon the biomorphic forms that dominated the left half of his drawings. This shift introduced a new and concentrated note of psychological intensity into Gorky’s work.

Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia is a summation painting, the definitive statement of all of Gorky's influences and concerns in the early 1930s. Cubism and Surrealism, as well as the artist’s wide knowledge of the history of art, are brilliantly assimilated into the work. His masterly handling of the different degrees of black, along with the poetic sobriety of the balanced forms, reflects Gorky’s interest in Spanish painting. The evidence of his hard work—scraping down and repainting—abounds in this example, testifying to the importance that Gorky assigned to it. In 1941, when asked to describe the subject of Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia, Gorky replied: “Wounded birds, poverty, and one whole week of rain.”