The Great Doesn’t Happen Through Impulse Alone, and Is a Succession of Little Things That Are Brought Together

Vincent van Gogh? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Several self-help books contain a statement about achieving magnificent results via an incremental approach. The saying is attributed to the brilliant and original painter Vincent van Gogh:

Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together. And great things are not accidental, but must certainly be willed.

I have not been able to find a solid citation; are these really the words of the famous post-Impressionist?

Quote Investigator: In October 1882 Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to his brother Theo that expressed a matching sentiment. Below is a passage translated from Dutch to English by the Van Gogh Letters Project. The two parts of the saying were contained within the text, but they were not adjacent. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

For the great doesn’t happen through impulse alone, and is a succession of little things that are brought together.

What is drawing? How does one get there? It’s working one’s way through an invisible iron wall that seems to stand between what one feels and what one can do. How can one get through that wall? — since hammering on it doesn’t help at all. In my view, one must undermine the wall and grind through it slowly and patiently. And behold, how can one remain dedicated to such a task without allowing oneself to be lured from it or distracted, unless one reflects and organizes one’s life according to principles? And it’s the same with other things as it is with artistic matters. And the great isn’t something accidental; it must be willed.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1970 a speaker named Paula Townsend addressed an awards banquet of the 4-H Club youth organization, and she delivered a partially matching thematic remark: 2

“Great things are not done in a hurry, they must be done gradually,” she said.

In 1988 a syndicated feature called “Today’s Almanac” from United Press International referred to a record-breaking price that was once paid for an artwork by the master Vincent van Gogh. The column also mentioned the first part of the saying: 3 4

In 1967, a Japanese insurance company paid $39.9 million at a London auction for one of van Gogh’s “Sunflower” paintings — nearly four times the previous record for any auctioned painting.

A thought for the day: Vincent van Gogh wrote, “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together.”

In 2008 an article in “The Sunday Gleaner” of Kingston, Jamaica printed an article about conserving oil, and the author included the two part saying ascribed to van Gogh: 5

Vincent van Gogh once made the point that “Great things are not done by impulse, but by a series of small things brought together; and great things are not something accidental, but must certainly be willed.” We have to develop the will to be a fuel saver.

In conclusion, Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter in 1882 that contained statements matching the two parts of the target quotation. The letter was written in Dutch and different translations into English are possible, but the two parts were not immediately adjacent. An ellipsis might be used to indicate the separation.

(Great thanks to Clay Harris and Vicky Beeching whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. The original question was about only the first part of the quotation.)


  1. Website: Van Gogh Museum of Amsterdam: Vincent van Gogh Letters, Letter number: 274, Letter from: Vincent van Gogh, Location: The Hague, Letter to: Theo van Gogh, Date: October 22, 1882, Website description: Van Gogh Letters Project database of the Van Gogh Museum. (Accessed on December 14, 2015) link
  2. 1970 November 10, St. Petersburg Times, Section: Suncoast Times, 4-H Achievements Recognized by Madeleine Sigmund (Times Correspondent), Quote Page 2, Column 1, St. Petersburg, Florida. (Google News Archive)
  3. 1988 March 30, The Cumberland News (Cumberland Times News), Today’s Almanac (United Press International), Quote Page 16, Column 6, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1988 March 30, Tyrone Daily Herald, Today’s Almanac, Quote Page 10, Column 4, Tyrone, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 2008 January 13, The Sunday Gleaner (Kingston Gleaner), Conserve! Conserve! Conserve! by Paul Messam (Gleaner Writer), Quote Page B10, Column 1, Kingston, Jamaica. (NewspaperArchive)