If Lucian Rudaux was the Grandfather of space art, Chesley Bonestell was the father. He was born on January 1, 1888, 15 years before the Wright brothers first flew and 38 years before the launch of the first liquid-fuel rocket. When he died 98 years later, men had walked on the moon and spacecraft had visited most of the planets and many of the moons of the solar system.
Bonestell's paintings not only anticipated 20th century space exploration, they helped to bring it about. So realistic were his depictions of other worlds that visiting them no longer seemed fantasy. His artwork looked like picture postcards taken by some future astronaut.
Bonestell started drawing at age five and began formal art instruction by the time he was 12. When he was 17, he visited Lick Observatory where he was inspired by seeing Saturn through the observatory's giant refractors. As soon as he returned home, Bonestell sketched a picture of the planet as he had observed it—probably his first attempt at space art.
Bonestell eventually became an architectural designer and renderer. One of his first professional jobs was working with the legendary Willis Polk on the reconstruction of San Francisco after the great earthquake and fire. Polk quickly made Bonestell his chief designer. In New York, Bonestell assisted William van Alen in the design of the Chrysler Building (its famous gargoyles are Bonestell's work). Later, Bonestell worked on the Golden Gate Bridge.
During this time, he kept up his interest in astronomy, filling sketchbooks with extraterrestrial scenes, like this one:
In 1938, Bonestell began a new career in Hollywood as a special effects matte painter. The first film he worked on was Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. All the views of turn-of-the-century New York and of Charles Foster Kane's mansion, Xanadu, are Bonestell's artwork. In The Fountainhead, Bonestell in a sense was Howard Roark: all of the buildings created by Ayn Rand's superheroic architect are by Bonestell. He eventually became Hollywood's highest-paid matte artist.
After his success as an astronomical artist, Bonestell returned to Hollywood to provide special effects art for George Pal’s Destination Moon, War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide. The complete panoramic matte painting for the latter is here, and an unused alternate version below:
And Bonestell's 14-foot-wide lunar landscape created for Destination Moon:
It occurred to him that he could employ what he’d learned as a special effects artist to create astronomical art with a level of realism never seen before. "As my knowledge of the technical side of the motion picture industry broadened,” he wrote, “I realized I could apply camera angles as used in the motion picture studio to illustrate 'travel' from satellite to satellite, showing Saturn exactly as it would look, and at the same time I could add interest by showing the inner satellites or outer ones on the far side of Saturn, as well as the planet itself in different phases."
For instance, he often employed a laborious technique of constructing detailed model landscapes, which he then photographed, painting over the final print. This resulted in a level of realism that was utterly convincing. It was a laborious technique, however, that he seldom used after the 1950s. Here is a detail from one these models:
This project resulted in his first published space art, a series of paintings depicting scenes on Saturn’s moons, that appeared in the May 29,1944, issue of Life. The public—to say nothing of science fiction fans—were astonished and delighted. Among the paintings was a ethereally beautiful view of Saturn seen from Titan. Inspiring an entire generation of scientists and space enthusiasts—countless scientists, engineers and astronauts have been inspired in their choice of careers by Bonestell's images, including a young Carl Sagan—it has been called “the painting that launched a thousand careers.”
Around this time, Bonestell began a long-term collaboration with Willy Ley, an expatriate German historian and science popularizer who had been a member of the German Spaceflight Society (Verein fur Raumschiffahrt). Taking advantage of Ley's advice, Bonestell began adding spacecraft to his paintings. In 1946 Life published another set of his illustrations, this time depicting a manned flight to the moon.
Bonestell's art began appearing regularly in magazines, from Look, Coronet, Pic and Mechanix Illustrated to Air Trails, Scientific American and Astounding Science Fiction. So popular had his art become that Bonestell once mistakenly sent the cover painting for a science-fiction magazine to the wrong publication. The editor of that magazine promptly ran it! Bonestell's first book, The Conquest of Space, created in collaboration with Ley, featured 48 of his paintings. It became an immediate best-seller. The cover painting has become one of the iconic images of the 1950s:
In addition to the artwork he was creating for books, magazines and movies, Bonestell created a magnificent mural for the Boston Museum of Science. Forty feet wide, it depicted a lunar landscape with breathtaking realism. The mural was removed after the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 because “it was no longer accurate.” The mural is now in the collection of the National Air & Space Museum, where plans are being made to restore and display it.
Sir Arthur C. Clarke tried to explain Bonestell’s popularity at this time by saying that his “...remarkable technique produces an effect of realism so striking that his paintings have sometimes been mistaken for actual colour photographs by those slightly unacquainted with the present status of interplanetary flight.... In the years to come it is probably destined to fire many imaginations, and thereby to change many lives."
Clarke was only too right. In 1951 Cornelius Ryan, the associate editor of Collier's magazine, invited Bonestell to illustrate a series of five articles on the future of spaceflight. The prime author was Wernher von Braun.
Just as Clarke had been, von Braun found himself awed by Bonestell's sharp eye for scientific and engineering accuracy. He once wrote that "Chesley Bonestell's pictures... are far more than reproductions of beautiful ethereal paintings of Worlds Beyond. They present the most accurate portrayal of those faraway heavenly bodies that modern science can offer. I do not say this lightly. In my many years of association with Chesley I have learned to respect, nay fear, this wonderful artist's obsession with perfection. My file cabinet is filled with sketches of rocket ships I had prepared to help him in his art work—only to have them returned to me with penetrating detailed questions or blistering criticism of some inconsistency or oversight."
The Collier's series—published between 1952 and 1954—took America by storm. The country turned space-happy; reproductions and knockoffs of Bonestell's paintings appeared in settings ranging from commercial advertisements to television programs to school lunch boxes. The series was eventually collected in three books: Across the Space Frontier, Conquest of the Moon and Exploration of Mars, now all collector’s items. Bonestell's artwork strongly influenced the American public and, in turn, the government to support an investment in space exploration. An influence that has been repeatedly acknowledged.
Over the following decade Bonestell watched manned space exploration become a reality. He grumpily noticed that the softly rolling lunar hills seen by the Apollo astronauts bore little resemblance to the craggy, romanticized, Doresque landscapes he had painted. But such inaccuracies do little to diminish the primary importance of Bonestell's work. His illustrations gave immediacy and verisimilitude to dry astronomical data. What had once been columns of numbers and blurry telescopic images took on a new, compelling reality.
Bonestell continued to work until he died in 1986, an unfinished painting still on his easel. Asteroid number 3129 and a crater on Mars have been given the name "Bonestell"—a fitting honor for the man whose art contributed to the birth of the space age.
All art copyright by and reproduced courtesy of Bonestell LLC