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.”

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Arshile Gorky, American, born Armenia, 1904–1948
Nighttime, Enigma and Nostalgia
c. 1933–1934
Oil on canvas mounted onto panel
36 × 47 7/8 in. (91.4 × 121.6 cm)
Credit Line

Museum purchase funded by the Caroline Wiess Law Accessions Endowment Fund

Current Location
Not on view
Accession Number

Artist; Mr. and Mrs. M. Martin Janis, 1934; The Martha Jackson Gallery, c. 1955; Estate of Arshile Gorky; Private Collection; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 2005,