Artistic Depictions of The Emperor’s New Clothes

by Judith Brown

"The Emporer’s New Clothes" 
Harry Clark, "The Emporer’s New Clothes," mixed media, 16" x 11"


The Emperor’s New Clothes, first published in May 1837, is a fairy tale with enduring appeal. Almost from the start, artists have been depicting the story, sometimes as illustrators of the text. The title of the story has made its way into the media as a term coined to express a situation whereby people allow themselves to be tricked or join with others in becoming deluded because they are scared to admit their lack of knowledge or incapacity to understand new ideas. In this world of constant supposed progress, there is much scope for both the powerful and the ordinary citizen to be deceived by the self – serving purveyors of new era societal proposals, whether scientists, economists, big tech companies or social engineers. Artists (illustrators) have in turn been fascinated by the tale and its description of a big aspect of modern life and applied their insights/skills in a variety of guises, including cartoons. It is one of Hans Christian Andersen’s most well-known tales, alongside The Little Mermaid and the illustrations, commonly found in compilations of Andersen’s tales for children, highlight the themes of the tale and bring the characters to life.

Although it is possible to analyse the fairy tale, and indeed all fairy tales, on their own from a literary perspective, the domain of illustration lends itself harmoniously to the written works and can greatly add to the power of the tale to influence one’s conceptual understanding of the world around us and our lives. In fact, as many people who enjoy reading illustrated books will claim, the pictures are part of the experience, rather than additions to it. To have a fairy tale visually depicted on the page, alongside the text, is valued by many people. Illustrators such as John Tenniel and Quentin Blake have become entwined with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Roald Dahl’s books.

A turning point in the history of illustration was entitled the Golden Age (1875–1920). It can be characterised by a surge in appreciation for the art form brought about by advances in both quality and technology, combined with a newfound artistic freedom for writers and publishers alike. According to the American art critic William A Coffin, illustration brought art into the domain of the public, more so than any other form of art. Viewed as a pioneer of the Golden Age, Walter Crane (1845–1915), worked on wallpaper, ceramics and interiors in addition to his children’s illustrations. The Arts and Crafts movement, of which Crane was a part, counteracted the Industrial Revolution (1760–1870), through placing value on infusing everyday life with fine craftsmanship. He championed the decorative arts as being equal to the “higher” forms of art and indeed argued that they are the soil from which the flowers grow.[1] The illustrators’ work was suffused with influences from the Pre-Raphaelites, art nouveaux as well as Japanese art. 

Born in Denmark in 1805, Andersen became an indispensable part of a literary culture which is marked by its inventiveness and has enthralled audiences through a range of mediums including film, ballet and opera. Despite receiving only an elementary level education, he was exposed to literature by his father including the Arabian Nights and the impact of this remained with him all his life. Prior to becoming an author, he worked as a weaver’s apprentice and as a tailor. At the age of 14 he moved to Copenhagen to attend the Royal Danish Theatre. There, in addition to being encouraged to pursue writing poetry, a director persuaded King Frederick VI to fund part of his education at a grammar school in Slagelse. In 1833, he received a small travel grant from the king, which allowed him to travel through Europe and meet very influential and prosperous people of his day. In 1845, his fairy tales were translated into English, and, to coincide with a growing worldwide audience, he employed his first illustrator, Vilhelm Pedersen (1820–1859), with whom he produced a new five-volume collection of his tales in 1849. Up until this point, Andersen’s tales were published without illustrations and this collaboration set the stage for the continued progression of illustrators’ careers, who would finally be able to attach their name to their work.

Vilhelm Pedersen, The Emporer’s New Clothes
Vilhelm Pedersen, "The Emporer’s New Clothes" (1849) 

The Emperor’s New Clothes, is probably the most abstract of Andersen’s tales in that it is an allegory for a wide range of situations outside of the literary sphere, and it can be appreciated by adults as well as children. To summarizethe tale: an emperor is visited by two men who tell him that they can weave him a set of magical clothes which become invisible to anyone who is unfit to do their jobs. Impressed by this offer, the emperor pays for these fine clothes to be made. Later, he sends his cleverest ministers to check on their progress - however fearful of being perceived as stupid, they return to him saying the clothes are beautiful. The emperor, fearing himself a fool, declares them to be beautiful. When the emperor parades through the streets in the clothes, but in reality, naked, no one admits that they cannot see the clothes except one child who detangles the truth from illusion. A rather formal presentation, Pedersen’s sketch is close to the tale. The courtiers look frozen in discomfort, while the spectators are bewildered.  

Hans Tenger (1853–1932), was another Danish illustrator for Anderson. His illustration is more embellished than Pedersen’s, though we can see that there is a strong resemblance to it. Tenger has reproduced it on a grander scale, maintaining the formality and imagery of the procession. 

Hans Tenger, 1900
Hans Tenger, "The Emporer’s New Clothes" (1900)

We can see a strong presence of nouveaux art in the composition, and being that Tenger was a Danish artist, he seemingly adhered to the outline of the houses that he would have been familiar with. The overall architecture of the scene, including the cobbled streets, give the piece a “foreign” feel. However, the tale transcends physical boundaries in terms of place. The fact that the illustration is in black and white makes it appear a historical artefact; if one was unfamiliar with the fairy tale, they may even think it was an event that actually took place. The illustration provides a satirical overview.

We also notice that there is a dichotomy between the deep discomfort of the courtiers (some of whom appear almost thoughtless) compared to the amusement of the public spectators who are more able to laugh at the king, although their laughter is cloaked beneath a sense of shock. The spectators, peering through their windows, are at a greater distance from the king. They are onlookers as opposed to being part of the king’s entourage. Also, they presumably have not had to go along with the deception of the king. There is an air of formality which makes the scene claustrophobic because of the need to remain formal while being aware of, albeit turning one’s back to, what is actually happening. At the bottom right-hand corner there are several children (instead of one child) which is a modification by Tegner, but the sense of their realization is apparent, in that they are the most alert individuals in the illustration. The focus here is on ‘spectacle’, although there is a subtle irony through how the emperor is presented in a white shirt compared to his elaborately dressed courtiers. 

​Joyce Mercer
Joyce Mercer, "The Emporer’s New Clothes" (1900s)


Joyce Mercer (1896–1965) was a British illustrator who employed an art deco style to her children’s illustrations, often including those by Andersen. In her illustration above, we see a newer artistic depiction of The Emperor’s New Clothes. Upon first glance, we note that it is naturally aligned with a child audience, however it is also a colorful assortment of the characters, presented as stock figures. This renders it similar to a cartoon although it is unlikely that Mercer had that intention when she was producing the image. Despite the somewhat two-dimensional nature of the work, the jarring (though harmonious) use of color combined with the circus/pageant imagery conveys immediately the theme of illusion and display. There is an overarching feeling of confusion caused by the clashing shapes, and we recognise it as a parody of the tale as opposed to a scene taken from it. We identify the emporer, the courtiers, the swindlers and the public spectators as fixed “types”. The illustration differs from that of Tenger in that its light heartedness enables us to appreciate the elaborate costumes and patterns. The emporer is presented in a decorative manner, with a crown on his head. An oriental pattern is also noticeable which reinforces the fact that the tale is adaptable to all cultures and countries. In contrast to Tenger’s image which requires dissecting to reach a full interpretation, Mercer’s is instantly recognisable as a portrait of ostentatiousness. This is similar to what takes place in a cartoon: “cartoons are the perfect medium through which to express oneself as their veneer of childishness makes the artist’s intended message easier to digest and more immediately affecting.”[2] Having looked at the three illustrations, we can now see that regarding fairy tales, the artist must strike their own balance between adhering to the authentic tale and manifesting their own interpretation. 

 George G. Harrap, 1932
George G. Harrap, "The Emporer’s New Clothes" (1932)

This individual interpretation may be transmitted through variable ways including use of color, stylistic devices or focus on a specific scene. To elucidate this idea, we can look at the illustration by George G. Harrop, which closely follows the reaction of the child at the closing of the fairy tale. Although Harrap’s painting is in many ways less closely identifiable with The Emperor’s New Clothes than Mercer’s, it is still an accessible image to be interpreted in a plethora of ways by the viewer. The focal point of this image is undoubtedly the child at the centre. In this portrayal, the child is a girl, which, combined with her clothing and the lighting effects, closely aligns her with a figure of an angel. She contrasts to the spectators around her who laugh but do not grasp (or expose) the full meaning of the tale. This is expressed through how the facial expressions of the spectators display confusion similar to those in Pedersen’s image, but that of the girl, with the light on her neck, is one of astounding clarity. The character of the child may have small visibility in the tale, but it is the mouthpiece for what Andersen is conveying to the reader. As the child is innocent, they see through the pretense of the procession, and while everyone else has drunk themselves into a state of feigned ignorance, the child is alert. In the same vein, we must keep our eyes open to situations in which we may be blinded by “the emperor’s new clothes!”

One final interpretation of this image, and of the tale itself, is that the child represents Andersen’s personal view of societal hierarchy. As an “add on” to the tale (it was meant to end with the emperor continuing through the procession), the child could even be said to be a young Andersen. A relatable story exists within his own childhood, which is that when he was taken to see King Frederic VI of Denmark by his mother, he remarked that the king was no more than a man.[3] Seen from this angle, the tale is a satire of the pomposity of those in positions of authority. However, Andersen’s experience as a child and then as a young man gaining the attention of the Danish king meant he experienced a special rapport with the boy in the tale who is in fact the best friend of the emperor, so badly let down by his advisors and thus becoming swindled and ridiculed by the tailors. 



  1. Walter Crane - Illustrations and Drawings
  2. ARTUNER | Beyond the Cartoon: Cartoons in Contemporary Art

About the Author

Judith Brown is a freelance writer who, after obtaining a masters in English from Kings College London, continued to pursue an interest in art. In her articles she draws links between art and literature, showing how both mediums have meaning in today's world.

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