Vincent van Gogh painted several portraits of Zouaves, including his friend Paul-Eugene Milliet (not the sitter for this portrait). A zouave was a regiment of the French army dressed in an arabesque influenced manner because of their Algerian background.
Van Gogh wrote about the Zouave painting in a letter to his brother Theo van Gogh, saying "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."