“The King’s New Clothes” – Through the eyes of Gen Z

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Blog | 0 comments

Gen Z –  the woke generation raised by social media and on the instant gratification of Google – encompassing all those born between 1997-2013.

King Charles by Jonathan Yeo. © Jonathan Yeo Studio

As a self-confessed member of Gen Z that enjoys sneering at my “chronically online” peer group whilst racking up double figures in my daily screen time, I will try to wrestle this portrait back from my fault-finding peers and explain why it is worth writing about. Now might also be a good time to say that I am an art history student if that helps you to think I might offer some insight into this artwork and hopefully present a silver lining to what this, as one Twitter user described, “Blood bath” might be attempting to do.

The larger-than-life portrait, measuring 8ft 6in by 6ft 6in goes above and beyond in not only capturing the likeness and personality of the King, but the ambitions and, perhaps failures, of the monarchy as a whole. The King is not the first notable sitter for Jonathan Yeo, and likely not the last, following his portrayals of Sir David Attenborough, Malala Yousafzai and fellow artist Grayson Perry.

However, the contemporary portrait has received overwhelming criticism on social media with the disapproving audience not only commenting their dislike of the painting, but also of the monarch. The focal point of their distaste seems to be the abstract style and vivid choice of colour that goes against the traditions of royal portraiture. Yet, this negative reception to be missing the point of what Yeo hopes to achieve with his unorthodox style.

Yeo’s distinctive and prominent application of colour appears to have provoked the most criticism from none other than the online masses of Gen Z. This may come as a surprise to many who would assume that young people admire this type of boundary pushing, especially in contemporary art. However, it is the choice of colour coupled with the choice of sitter, the King, that has proved the most controversial.

The endemic of instant gratification has plagued my generation since the birth of the iPhone. We have grown up with the world in our pockets and information available immediately, so it is no wonder that we are so used to getting what we want, when we want it. We have lost control of our now non-existent attention spans. We can no longer watch a film without checking our phone, let alone look at a painting for more than mere seconds. Ironically then, despite being so aware and insecure of everything and everyone around, we are unable to engage with our own opinions. Instead, we judge immediately, leaving no time to reconsider that we could, heaven forbid, be wrong.

The King’s portrait is an unfortunate sitting target for poorly conceived beliefs and attitudes to be blasted into comment sections that suffocate and shoot down any other viewpoint not held by those same keyboard warriors. In my opinion, as an ambitious Gen Z attempting to rally against these “woke” stereotypes, I believe the multilayered and considered approaches made in executing this portrait can transcend these superficial interpretations. All that is required of us is to just take our time to look and engage before we can describe the painting as “Hellish and Satanic” as one twitter user helpfully points out.


Artist Jonathan Yeo painting a portrait of King Charles III. © Jonathan Yeo Studio

King Charles III: Monarch and Monarchy

To deconstruct this painting, we cannot put off this bright red background any longer as not only is this what draws our eye first, but also what has attracted the most online criticism.

The vivid red is unavoidable to the eye and makes for a bold choice by the artist. As the most apparent element of the painting, surpassing his face and outfit, the imagery that this colour incites is hardly positive. The usual connotations of this shade of red would be blood, anger, danger, and violence. Coupled with the subject of this portrait as the King adds more fuel to the fire. The monarchy is not known for its love and passion that is often attributed to this shade, but rather the legacy of spilling colonial blood and war. As the King stands frontal, directly looking at us, it is as if he is unaware of the unfolding red chaos behind him.

A large part of the younger generation sees the monarchy as a historical part of this nation but something that no longer aligns with the modern world. Gen Z just doesn’t care for the Royal Family anymore in the same way that previous generations have been inclined to. Recent commentary is especially wrapped up with the monarchy’s relationship with colonialism and their continuous profiting from colonialism. This is a large grounding for Gen Z’s disdain of the monarchy due to their anti-colonialist standpoint.

This painting visualises and symbolises the impact of war on the people, rather than the leaders that are unfazed and undamaged in their privilege and separation to the harsh reality. This is made more significant by the King’s choice of dress, in his uniform that blurs the line between background and foreground. His clothes help to create the parallels between the red canvas and the allusions to war, whilst directly representing his military status as Regimental Colonel in the Welsh Guards. It is no wonder then that to the liberal and largely anti-war audience of Gen Z, this portrait is not to be esteemed or respected.

The King’s striking portrait bears an uncanny similarity to the Emperor’s New Clothes not just in blurring the distinction between where his clothes end, and the background begins, but also in the seeming ignorance of the leader to the reality of the world.

However, this interpretation conflates the King and the monarchy. In this regard, I mean the monarchy as a larger entity, a more conceptual idea of the royal family as an entire unit: past, present, and future.

“King”, but also “Charles” – King for a day, Charles for a lifetime

I feel it is Yeo’s aim for the painting to separate the King and the Monarchy, represented by the red background, from Charles the environmentalist and independent character portrayed in his face, hands, and attributes.

Yeo separates the King from the monarchy in the clash of styles: realism vs. abstract. Yeo’s portrayal of Charles’s face is distinguished, identifiable, and empathetic. He advances towards us due to the colour contrast of his skin tone against the receding background and Yeo’s technical skill showcases his humanity and character. The artist attempts to separate Charles from the near-overshadowing pomp of the monarchy that almost absorbs his entire figure, except for his hands and face.

The monarchy, therefore, symbolised by the abstract use of red, becomes intangible and incorporeal in juxtaposition to the relatable and real representation of the King’s face. This separation between the two serves to monumentalise the monarchy. The aim is to depict it as a timeless entity that not only records the length of time it has existed up until now, but also its continual preservation and status into the future. Yeo is showing through the separation of the two, King and monarchy, that although the figurehead will change, the overall system will last infinitely.

This observation has been lost in the overwhelming critique and commentary on social media, particularly those of Gen Z. This is a more profound and arguably an untethered interpretation that has been devised just by looking for a little longer and trying to make sense of Yeo’s aims and achievements rather than judging superficially and immediately.

Yeo deepens the separation between the person and the system, the King and the monarchy, through his inclusion of a vividly outlined butterfly flying just above Charles’s shoulder. It is firstly an allusion to the King’s environmental passions, but it also adds to his humanity and softness that is represented in his warm face.

After looking for a little longer, it is apparent that the insect holds an incomparable likeness to a monarch butterfly. Not only in name does it represent another side to the King, but it is also an endangered species and now holds a place on the IUCN’s “Red List of Threatened Species”. Even before the recent news regarding the King’s health, both him and us know that he is an older man and that his reign is in a sense, also endangered. Given Gen Z’s current beliefs, I don’t believe it a stretch to say that the monarchy itself also is in a threatened position, becoming more and more precariously situated as it faces online backlash daily.

“Why Your Five Year Old/Year 11 Student Could Not Have Done That”

Whilst my initial, and characteristically Gen Z reaction upon seeing this was that it would not seem out of place in a GCSE art show. I see now that it holds a reverence in conjuring up the character and tenderness of the King as well as the significance and intangibility of the monarchy as a construct.

Yeo’s painting is a unique take on the traditional canon of royal portraiture that seeks to showcase the humanity and character of the monarch in his military status and commitment to protecting the environment. Whilst not a favourite painting of mine, I am glad to have taken the time to unpick and understand the imagery and symbolism that Yeo weaves into the canvas. Initially, my reaction to the portrait was much like the rest of my generation, scorning the lazy modernist techniques and heavy use of colour but I can respect Yeo’s aims for the image to aspire to and I hope that this is the start of an exciting new custom of distinctive and eccentric royal portraiture.


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