I Am Always Doing What I Can’t Do Yet in Order To Learn How To Do It

Pablo Picasso? Vincent van Gogh? Fred Beerstein?

Dear Quote Investigator: You have the following inspirational saying on the website:

Only one who attempts the absurd is capable of achieving the impossible.

The above remark reminded me of a statement that has been attributed to two very different painters: Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh:

I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

Can you tell me which artist really deserves the credit?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in a letter sent in 1885 to painter Anthon van Rappard from Vincent van Gogh who was immersed in the creation of the landmark canvas “The Potato Eaters”. The following English text based on the Dutch original was provided by the Van Gogh Museum. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

The work in question, painting the peasants, is such laborious work that the extremely weak would never even embark on it. And I have at least embarked on it and have laid certain foundations, which isn’t exactly the easiest part of the job! And I’ve grasped some solid and useful things in drawing and in painting, more firmly than you think, my dear friend. But I keep on making what I can’t do yet in order to learn to be able to do it.

A somewhat different translation of the key sentence appeared in volume three of “The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh” which was reviewed in “The New York Times” in 1979: 2

His own description of his work is best: “I am always doing what I can’t do yet in order to learn how to do it.” Getting along with people was something else he could not do yet. “Madness,” he wrote, “is salutary in that one becomes less exclusive.” Another way of saying that when the need for human contact is terrible enough, anyone will do.

An instance was attributed to Pablo Picasso by 1995, but his death had occurred more than two decades earlier in 1973.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




The English excerpt from the 1885 letter given above corresponded to the following Dutch text:

Het werk in kwestie, ’t schilderen van de boeren, is een zóó zwaar werk dat de uiterst zwakken van zelf wel er niet eens aan beginnen.– En ik ben er ten minste aan begonnen en heb zekere fondamenten gelegd, wat niet precies ’t makkelijkst is van de karwei! En in teekenen en in schilderen heb ik sommige vaste en nuttige dingen beet, vaster dan ge denkt amice. Maar ik maak steeds wat ik nog niet kan om het te leeren kunnen.–

The 1979 book review was distributed by the New York Times News Service and appeared in other papers such as “The Indianapolis Star” of Indianapolis, Indiana. 3 Thus, the Van Gogh’s remark was further disseminated.

In 1988 “Los Angeles Times” printed an adage spoken by a science teacher Fred Beerstein that expressed a similar idea: 4

Beerstein tells the story of a man who wanted to learn to play the violin. The man went to the concert hall, listened attentively and then went home and tried to start playing. To his astonishment, he found that he could not do it. “He was terrible. His response to that was: ‘Next time, I’ll sit closer.’

“The point is,” Beerstein said, “you need to do it in order to learn how to do it. The same is true for teaching.”

In 1995 a message in the Usenet newsgroup rec.games.diplomacy ascribed the saying to Picasso: 5

“I am always doing what I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” Pablo Picasso

In 1997 a computer columnist in “The San Diego Union-Tribune” of California stated that he had seen the expression credited to Van Gogh in an email: 6

I have a friend in San Francisco, Ammon Haggerty, a most gifted Web designer . . . who placed the following quote from Vincent Van Gogh just after his name in the signature section of his e-mails: “I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it.”

In conclusion, Vincent van Gogh deserves credit for this quotation which he initially penned in Dutch in 1885. Two distinct translations into English were given above. The attribution to Picasso occurred after his death and was not well supported.

Images Notes: Picture of the 1889 painting “The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh. Self-portrait by Vincent Van Gogh. Images have been retouched, resized, and cropped.

(Great thanks to Kim Shaver whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 528, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: Nuenen, Letter to: Anthon van Rappard, Date: August 18, 1885, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed vangoghletters.org on March 26, 2017) link
  2. 1979 February 10, New York Times, Books of The Times: Nature Has Spoken to Me by Anatole Broyard, (Book Review of “The Complete Letters of Vincent Van Gogh” in 3 Volumes), Quote Page 17, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  3. 1979 February 18, The Indianapolis Star, Van Gogh Letters Republished In 3 Volumes (New York Times News Service), Section 8, Quote Page 13, Column 4, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1988 March 15, Los Angeles Times, Many Teachers Fill Jobs Without Proper Training by Anne C, Roark (Times Staff Writer), Start Page C1, Quote Page C18, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  5. 1995 August 15, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: rec.games.diplomacy, From: Gregory Galla @osu.edu, Subject: Re: Macro needed for backing up files. (Google Groups Search; Accessed March 26, 2017) link
  6. 1997 September 2, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Column: Pics, clicks & bits, Know the code to create top Web site by Jon Warren Lentz (free-lance artist working with cameras and computers in Carlsbad), Section: Computer Link, Quote Page 20, San Diego, California. (NewsBank Access World News)