Arno and Addams

Cartoonists with an edge

Created date

July 20th, 2018
One of Peter Arno’s best-known illustrations (circ., 1943), showing a man completely submerged, head down, in a glass-enclosed shower stall.

One of Peter Arno’s best-known illustrations (circ., 1943), showing a man completely submerged, head down, in a glass-enclosed shower stall.

The realm of illustration comprises numerous great artists and household names the likes of Norman Rockwell, Beatrix Potter, Gustave Doré, and Dorothy Hope Smith. But there is one important group of illustrators who often find themselves left out of the mix—cartoonists.

In fact, two people represent possibly the greatest and raciest twentieth-century illustrators of their kind: Peter Arno and Charles Addams.

Peter Arno

Born Curtis Arnoux Peters in 1904, Arno (as he would later change his name) was both highly intelligent and privileged. The son of a New York State Supreme Court judge, he attended the prestigious Hotchkiss School and Yale University, where, at the latter, he produced cartoons, illustrations, and cover art for the campus humor magazine The Yale Record.

Arno was a fixture at the Record—a hugely talented and funny cartoonist who had a sharp, yet bawdy, sense of humor. Immediately, he caught the attention of outside professionals and, in 1925, he joined the newly founded and sophisticated New Yorker magazine, where he would remain for the duration of his career.

Arno was suave and confident, in possession of a brilliant mind and playboy looks. At The New Yorker, he helped make print cartoon history as one of the pioneer artists to include subtle nudity in his comedic panels.

At least as early as 1931, cartoons of his appeared featuring women and men in various states of undress, and always with a humorous edge. The New Yorker ran them all.

One particularly funny drawing saw publication in 1943. It depicted a man completely submerged, head down, in a glass-enclosed shower stall, his bare bottom exposed.

Meanwhile, his scantily clad wife looks on in astonishment, puzzled about how she should handle her husband’s predicament—open the door and flood the bathroom, or let the guy swim?

Remarkably, no one seems to have complained about his drawings. Quite the contrary, readers and popular art fanatics venerated Arno in his own time and still do today, 50 years after his death from emphysema at age 64.

That said, he was not the only edgy cartoonist in town.

Charles Addams

Equally well heeled was Arno’s macabre contemporary Charles Addams. A descendant of Presidents John and John Quincy (notwithstanding the altered spelling), Addams was the son of a well-to-do piano company executive.

Born in Westfield, N.J., in 1912, he was a bright boy but, according to some, was also a bit different. Indeed, around his neighborhood, he was known as something of a troublemaker, with police once arresting him for breaking and entering at a home in Philadelphia.

Because he recognized artistic talent and, no doubt, wanted to channel his son’s misspent energy on other pursuits, Addams’ father encouraged him to draw.

Between 1929 and 1932, the youth bounced from one prestigious school to another, starting at the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, then moving on to Colgate, and finally, the Grand Central School of Art in New York City.

In 1933, Addams started working for the pulp publication True Detective Magazine. And his job: removing the blood and gore from the crime scene photos of corpses.

Addams’ reaction to the task signaled great things to come. He once noted that he didn’t understand the point.

“A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were,” he observed.

Addams certainly had a morbid sense of humor and first published his greatest creation in the pages of The New Yorker. In 1938, his satirical cartoon of the ideal modern family debuted.

His Addams Family—a clan of freakishly dark, independently wealthy characters—was a runaway success. These panels were also a direct reflection of Addams’ strange sense of humor.

In one installment, for instance, the patriarch Gomez and his family sit at their picture window watching a violent thunderstorm. The caption reads: “Just the kind of day that makes you feel good to be alive!”

Ultimately, Hollywood picked up the cartoon and made it a primetime television series and, later, major motion pictures. In its own way, Addams’ work was racy for its shock value, moral irony, and almost total contradiction of logic.

As a pair, however, Arno and Addams blazed a trail in the world of illustration, for they tested the limits of socially acceptable public expression and set new boundaries for publishing mores, broadening the horizon for future artists.