This painting depicts Paul-Eugène Milliet, second lieutenant in the third regiment of the Zouaves. Milliet and Vincent van Gogh became friends in 1888 when both men were in Arles, France.
Paul-Eugène Milliet was atypical of many who chose a life long career in the military. Milliet had a keen interest in art and was enthusiastic about painting and drawing. It was only natural that he and Van Gogh would gravitate toward one another in Arles. Van Gogh wrote to Emile Bernard:
"I know a second lieutenant in the Zouaves here; his name is Milliet. I give him drawing lessons--with my perspective frame--and he is beginning to do some drawings and, honestly, I've seen far worse. He is keen to learn . . . ."
Vincent encouraged Milliet in his work and was impressed enough to write to Theo and ask him to send Cassagne's instructional book ABCD du dessin in order to assist with his tutelage of the young Zouave. Throughout the summer of 1888 Vincent van Gogh and Paul-Eugène Milliet spent much time together, exploring the countryside and discussing art. Van Gogh recalled one pleasant day:
"I have come back from a day at Montmajour, and my friend the second lieutenant was with me. We explored the old garden together and stole some excellent figs. If it had been bigger it would have made me think of Zola's Paradou, great reeds, vines, ivy, fig trees, olives, pomegranates with lusty flowers of the brightest orange, hundred-year-old cypresses, ash trees and willows, rock oaks, half-broken flights of steps, ogive windows in ruins, blocks of white rock covered with lichen, and scattered fragments of crumbling walls here and there among the greenery. I brought back another big drawing, but not of the garden. That makes three drawings. When I have half a dozen I shall send them along."
Vincent enjoyed his time with Milliet, finding in him a friend that he could share ideas with. Still, the pair's relationship was somewhat turbulent--a frequent pattern accompanying Van Gogh's friendships. Early in his career, Vincent van Gogh enjoyed learning from his cousin by marriage, the painter Anton Mauve. Van Gogh very much valued their time painting together, but he was extremely sensitive to criticism and this had a detrimental effect on their relationship. Milliet described his disapproval of Van Gogh's technique:
"What I find wrong in [Van Gogh's paintings] is that they are not drawn. He painted too broadly, he gave no attention to details, he never sketched out his design. Even though, (and I repeat,) when he wanted to, he knew how to draw. He let colour take the place of drawing, which is nonsense, because colour completes the design. And what colour . . . excessive, abnormal, inadmissible. Tones too hot, too violent, not restrained enough. You see, my friend, the painter has to make a painting with love, not with passion. A painting has to be "cuddled"; Van Gogh, he, he raped it . . . Sometimes, he was a veritable brute--"hard-assed," as they say."