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Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon

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Oil on canvas
49.5 x 45.5 cm.
Saint-Rémy: May, 1890
F 704, JH 1981

Sao Paulo: Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo


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Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon is one of the lesser recognized landscapes from Vincent van Gogh's Saint-Rémy period. Although rarely exhibited outside its home in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this painting nevertheless presents some interesting aspects for the viewer--both compositional and thematic.

Colours and composition

Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon is an intriguing composite of common themes found in works throughout Van Gogh's career, but at the same time some specific characteristics set it aside from other paintings.

Olive trees and cypresses are often portrayed in paintings from Van Gogh's Saint-Rémy period. But the trees in Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon are less imposing and less intricately detailed. Van Gogh's cypresses are famous, but those seen in the current work appear in the distance almost as an afterthought, lacking the majesty and turbulence that so often characterize Van Gogh's cypress trees. The olive trees, too, appear small and brush-like, lacking in the stately olive orchards found in paintings such as Olive Grove. The "toned down" quality of the trees is likely intentional, however, so as not to divert attention from the couple in the foreground.

The painting is unusual, too, in that it depicts twilight. The vast majority of Van Gogh's Arles and Saint-Rémy works are set in daylight under the scorching Provençal sun. Twilight landscapes were more common in the early years of Van Gogh's career (see Autumn Landscape at Dusk, from the Nuenen period, for example), but in later years Van Gogh abandoned twilight scenes for the most part. Without question, Van Gogh took wonderful stylistic license with his skies--blazing crescent moons shimmering in broad daylight (see Table 1 below), but the straightforward depiction of dawn and dusk was rare in the last years of Van Gogh's career.

Unusual, too, is the almost square size of the canvas of Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon. With a few notable exceptions (Van Gogh's "double square" landscape paintings from his Auvers period, for example), Van Gogh executed works in a standard portrait or landscape format--regardless of the size of canvas used. In his Paris period Van Gogh experimented with some charming oval works (Basket of Sprouting Bulbs, for example), but for the most part he preferred a standard rectangular format. The current work is notable for its uncharacteristically square ratio.


In addition to some of the intriguing stylistic nuances of Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon, there are also some contradictions in terms of the painting's background which warrant attention.

The dating, for example. Most references place the work late in Van Gogh's Saint-Rémy period, but as Ronald Pickvance points out, there are suggestions that the work may, in fact, have been executed several months earlier in October, 1889.1

Another contradiction arises with regards to whether Van Gogh ever mentioned Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon in his letters. Pickvance maintains that the painting is never once mentioned in any of Van Gogh's surviving letters2 and yet one of the world's foremost authorities on the letters, Jan Hulsker, states that the work is mentioned in two of Van Gogh's letters: 644 and W13. Surprisingly, Hulsker appears to be mistaken. Letter 644 describes several paintings Van Gogh was working on, but the description that matches the current work the most closely would seem to be "a cypress with a star" and yet this is almost certainly Road with Cypress and Star and not Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon. In Letter W1 Van Gogh writes to his sister Wil of "the orchards of olive trees . . . with their very different skies of yellow, pink and blue colours" and yet the colours described are completely different than the greens and oranges of the current work.

Familiar motifs

As mentioned, the olive and cypress trees seen in Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon were a common theme throughout Van Gogh's years in the south of France. Other motifs in this painting also have their precedents.

  • The faces: During his career Vincent van Gogh painted thirty-six self-portraits. Occasionally, however, in other works he may have taken a far more subtle approach by overlaying his image on a figure within the painting. The man in the walking couple clearly has red hair and beard and is wearing a blue shirt (clothing which Vincent often favoured in some of his more famous self-portraits such as Self-Portrait with Straw Hat). It's not unreasonable to suggest that Vincent chose to place himself within the landscape, but it is notable that he also gave himself a companion. For much of his life, Vincent van Gogh sought, usually in vain, contentment through female companionship. Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon was painted while Van Gogh was voluntarily confined in the mental asylum of Saint-Paul-de-Mausole in Saint-Rémy. When he painted this work Van Gogh had been a patient for twelve months (if we accept the May, 1890 dating) and had suffered ongoing isolation and despair. Here, the faceless red-headed man tromps through the fields with a female companion. Perhaps Van Gogh is embellishing his landscape with an idealized scenario that he was denied in the harsh reality of the asylum. This stands in sharp contrast another more anguished, but sadly more realistic, subliminal self-portrait from the same period: Prisoners Exercising.

    Although Prisoners Exercising is, in fact, a painted copy of an earlier drawing by Gustave Doré, its subject matter was a poignantly fitting one for Van Gogh during his confinement in the Saint-Rémy mental asylum. The prisoners (or to use the analogous substitution: the patients) are marched in a small compound within the claustrophobic prison walls. The prisoners shuffle within the circle--moving but not advancing--and, with the exception of one man, are faceless. The figure in the foreground stares directly at the viewer--perhaps not defiantly, but certainly with a gaze that suggests an unbroken individuality. It's often been suggested that this lone prisoner is, in fact, Van Gogh himself looking at viewer from within his own brushstrokes. An intriguing suggestion and, as mentioned, one that stands in contrast to the freedom and happy intimacy of Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon.

  • The gestures: The sweeping movement of the woman in Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon is also noteworthy in that the sheer exaggerated animation of the gesture make it most unusual within Van Gogh's works.

    The gesture is reminiscent of that seen in The Raising of Lazarus. Both paintings were produced in precisely the same period and it's possible that Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon harbours a subtle, religious undercurrent (not an unreasonable interpretation, given that such undercurrents were common in Van Gogh's works--particularly those executed near the end of his long confinement in the Saint-Rémy asylum). Van Gogh's religious beliefs had been in a state of turbulent flux for years, but there's no question that he always harboured a deep reverence and spiritual respect for nature. Here, a female figure demonstrates the same arguably religious fervour seen in The Raising of Lazarus--but in this particular case within the sweeping Provençal fields.

  • The crescent moon motif: Finally one of Vincent van Gogh's most easily recognized motifs is the crescent moon.

    The crescent moon can be found in four of Van Gogh's paintings (as well as various other drawings and letter sketches) and stands out as a radiant gem shining in Van Gogh's famous night skies.

    Table 1: Crescent Moon Motif

    Title F JH Location Thumbnail
    Cypresses 613 1746 New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art

    Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon 704 1981 Sao Paulo: Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo

    Road with Cypress and Star 683 1982 Otterlo: Kröller-Müller Museum

    Starry Night 612 1731 New York: Museum of Modern Art


While it's unfair (to say nothing of crudely anthropomorphic) to suggest that Landscape with Couple Walking and Crescent Moon has been upstaged by its other more famous "brothers" from the same period, it is true that it remains unduly unappreciated. One could argue that the painting lacks the technical depth of, say, Road with Cypress and Star, but the work truly stands on its own as a remarkable achievement. The commentary above demonstrates stylistic links to the other, more acclaimed paintings, but the unique combination of motif, colour and composition culminate in a rich and brilliantly executed work.


1. Ronald Pickvance, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1986), p. 54.
2. Ibid.
3. Jan Hulsker, Vincent van Gogh: A Guide to His Works and Letters (Waanders, 1993), p. 42.


Owner City Country Date acquired
Johanna van Gogh-Bonger Amsterdam Netherlands
C.M. van Gogh (J.H. de Bois) Amsterdam Netherlands
A.G. Kröller The Hague Netherlands 1910
P.R. Bruckmann The Hague Netherlands 1910
Huinck and Scherjon Art Gallery Amsterdam Netherlands  
Kröller-Müller Museum Otterlo Netherlands 4 February 1943
D'Audretsch Art Gallery The Hague Netherlands 4 April 1946
M. Frank Art Gallery New York United States  
Wildenstein Art Gallery New York United States  
Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo Sao Paulo Brazil  


Year City Country Venue Exhibition Name Start Date End Date No.
1953-54 Paris France Musée de l'Orangerie Chefs-d'oeuvre du Musée d'Art de Sao Paulo  
1954 Utrecht Netherlands Centraal Museum Meesterwerken uit Sao Paulo 6 March 1954 2 May 1954 54
1955 New York (2) United States Wildenstein and Co. Vincent van Gogh Loan Exhibition 24 March 1955 30 April 1955 56
1986-87 New York United States Metropolitan Museum of Art Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers 12 November 1986 22 March 1987 54
1987 Verona Italy Palazzo Forti Da Monet a Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings from the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP) 4 July 1987 27 September 1987
1987 Monza Italy Serrone della Villa Reale Da Monet a Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings from the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP) 7 October 1987 6 December 1987
1987-88 Genoa Italy Villa Croce Da Monet a Toulouse-Lautrec: Paintings from the Museu de Arte de Sao Paulo (MASP) 17 December 1987 21 February 1988  
2002 Sapporo Japan Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art Vincent & Theo van Gogh 5 July 2002 25 August 2002 46
2002 Kobe Japan Hyogo Prefectural Museum of Art Vincent & Theo van Gogh 7 September 2002 4 November 2002 46
2002-03 Treviso Italy Casa dei Carraresi L'Impressionismo e l'Età di Van Gogh 9 November 2002 30 March 2003  
2005-06 Brescia Italy Museo di Santa Giulia Gauguin-Van Gogh: The Adventure of the New Color 22 October 2005 26 March 2006 114

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