Vincent van Gogh created two paintings, a watercolor and two drawings of The Zouave. Zouve was the title given to light infantry regiments in the French Army between 1831 – 1962. The unit was originally composed of Algerian soldiers so they wore a distinctive red and yellow arabesque influenced uniform which included a blue sash. Van Gogh portrayed these with bright colors in his paintings.
Van Gogh had been working on his harvest series when torrential rainfall interrupted his work. It was during this time that Van Gogh finally found someone to pose for him. a young Zouave. He created a watercolor of reed pen and ink as well as wax crayon to serve as a color study for the half-length oil painting portrait. In July, Van Gogh sent the watercolor to his friend, Emile Bernard with the inscription, “Comrade Emile Bernard.”
On June 21, 1888 Van Gogh wrote to his brother, Theo about the opportunity and the resulting paintings,
“I have a model at last – a Zouave – a boy with a small face, a bull neck, and the eye of a tiger, and I began with one portrait, and began again with another; the half-length I did of him was horribly harsh, in a blue uniform, the blue of enamel saucepans, with braids of a faded reddish-orange, and two yellow stars on his breast, an ordinary blue, and very hard to do. That bronzed, feline head of his with a red cap, I placed it against a green door and the orange bricks of a wall. So it’s a savage combination of incongruous tones, not easy to manage. The study I made of it seems to me very harsh, but all the same I’d like always to be working on vulgar, even loud portraits like this. It teaches me something, and above all that is what I want of my work. The second portrait will be full length, sitting against a white wall.”
He was clearly not happy with how the first painting of the Zouave turned out and he said as much in his letter to Theo on June 23, 1888
“I am very dissatisfied with what I have been doing lately, because it is very ugly. But all the same, figure is interesting me more than landscape.
Anyway, I shall send you a drawing of the Zouave today. In the end making studies of figures so as to experiment and to learn will be the shortest way for me to do something worth while.”
All the work on the Zouaves was not lost on Van Gogh. He hoped it would lead to better things as he said in a letter to, friend, Emile Bernard on June 23, 1888.
“What I’ve been doing looks very ugly – a drawing of a seated Zouave, a painted sketch of the Zouave against a completely white wall, and finally his portrait against a green door and some orange bricks in a wall. It is harsh, and taking it all in all, ugly and unsuccessful. Yet, because I was tackling a real difficulty with it, it may pave the way for the future.”
At the end of July – beginning of August, Van Gogh created some of his most impressive drawings depicting paintings he had recently done, including one of Zouave, Half-Figure. In the drawing, Van Gogh uses a a variety of techniques including dots, striations, and intense crosshatching to express the striking color combinations of his painting.