Artist Profile: Charles Addams

A Cartoonist of Incongruous Charm

Charles Addams, Penguin Convention, watercolor and correction fluid drawing for the cover of The New Yorker featuring a colony of penguins, 1977.
Charles Addams, Penguin Convention, cover illustration for The New Yorker, September 12, 1977. Sold June 5, 2018 for $30,000.

With a proclivity to the grim, grisly and gruesome, Charles Addams (1912-1988) walked through life illuminating its incongruous funny bones and sore spots. Addams contributed to The New Yorker for more than 50 years, and his work can be found in the permanent collections of The New York Public Library and The Library of Congress. Although his life’s work is estimated to consist of several thousand original pieces, his most well-known characters, those of The Addams Family, only appear in approximately 50 illustrations. 

The Addams Family

Charles Addams, watercolor, ink and wash drawing of Morticia Addams and Lurch showing a guest to their room, for the March 13, 1943 issue of The New Yorker.
Charles Addams, “This is your room. If you should need anything, just scream,” full-page cartoon featuring Morticia and Lurch for The New Yorker, March 13, 1943. Sold September 29, 2016 for $20,000.

The popularity of The Addams Family is largely due to the generations of readers and collectors who saw the family as a refreshing jab at the traditional American family. The cast of kooky characters were born within the pages of The New Yorker in 1938 and brought to life time and time again in the form of television shows, books, a Broadway musical, and feature films.

Charles Addams, watercolor, pen and ink drawing of Uncle Fester from The Addams Family shopping for knives, likely used for a sporting goods store ad.
Charles Addams, Fester shopping for knives, a likely advertisement for Abercrombie & Fitch. Sold June 4, 2019 for $8,750.
Charles Addams, watercolor, pen and ink drawing of the Z subway line featuring Uncle Fester, Wednesday Addams and Grandmama from The Addams Family, 1979.
Charles Addams, Z Line Subway, cartoon featuring Uncle Fester, Wednesday, and Gradmama for The New Yorker, October 1, 1979. Sold March 21, 2017 for $16,250.

Upon the Addams Family television debut in 1964, the editor of The New Yorker, William Shawn, refused to publish cartoons featuring the beloved characters. Shawn allegedly saw conflict between their high-brow magazine readership and the low-brow nature of the television show. Although the ban lasted until Shawn’s retirement in 1987, Addams snuck three characters into the 1979 cartoon pictured above, Z Line Subway. Wednesday and Grandmama stand directly behind the conductor’s booth, and Uncle Fester peers out the back window.

Life Imitates Art

Charles Addams, watercolor, ink and wash drawing of a couple passing a giant bird house for The New Yorker, 1948.
Charles Addams, Couple Passing a Giant Bird House, cartoon for The New Yorker, January 17, 1948. Sold December 6, 2018 for $16,250.

Addams’s life mirrored his art: he married his third wife, Marilyn, in a pet cemetery on Long Island. The bride wore a long black dress. In 1988, he died at age 76 after a heart attack in his parked car, just outside of his apartment building in midtown Manhattan. “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go,” Marilyn told the The New York Times–an obituary quote he undoubtedly could have used as cartoon fodder, had he been able.

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