The subject of the painting was the 17-year-old English early Romantic poet Thomas Chatterton, shown dead after he poisoned himself with arsenic in 1770. Chatterton was considered a Romantic hero for many young and struggling artists in Wallis's day. His method and style in Chatterton reveal the importance of his connection to the Pre-Raphaelite movement, seen in the vibrant colours and careful build-up of symbolic detail. He used a bold colour scheme with a contrasting palette and he exploited the fall of the natural light through the window of the garret to implement his much loved style at the time, chiaroscuro. Wallis painted the work in a friend's chamber in Gray's Inn, with St Paul's Cathedral on the skyline visible through the window. It was probably a coincidence that this location was close to the garret in Brooke Street where Chatterton died 86 years before.The model used for the painting was the young George Meredith, a Victorian era English novelist and poet. The painting was Wallis's first exhibited work. It was shown at the Royal Academy summer exhibition in 1856, with a quotation from the Tragedy of Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe inscribed on the frame: "Cut is the branch that might have grown full straight, And burned is Apollo's laurel bough". It was an immediate success, with John Ruskin describing it as "faultless and wonderful". It drew large crowds at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857, was also exhibited in Dublin in 1859,and was one of the most popular Victorian paintings in reproductive print form.