American space artist Chesley Bonestell (1888–1986) was one of the first space artists to inspire the public with his vision of other worlds, and many view him as the father of astronomical painting. He worked as an architect and painted backdrops for films during Hollywood's Golden Age, but his interest in astronomy inspired him to focus on spacecraft and alien worlds in his later career.
Always considering himself an illustrator because he was telling a story, space artist Chesley Bonestell viewed himself as an illustrator rather than an artist, creating compelling images that transported mid-20th-century America to the Martian surface and the craters of Earth's moon, allowing them to imagine a future where humankind would expand its purview to the galaxy. As Howard E. McCurdy argued in Space and the American Imagination, “No artist had more impact on the emerging popular culture of space in America than Chesley Bonestell. Through his visual images, he stimulated the interest of a generation of Americans and showed how space travel would be accomplished.” Through Bonestell's work, published in popular magazines during the 1940s and early 1950s, the public's interest in manned space travel was sparked, igniting a U.S. Congress ambivalent about funding the civilian-focused space program proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1958, that program would finally be implemented as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
Chesley Knight Bonestell, Jr., was born in San Francisco, California, on January 1, 1888, the son of an attorney and his wife, although his mother, a musician of Spanish descent, died shortly thereafter. Showing his talent for art by age five, Bonestell won art prizes at Clement Grammar School and his father enrolled him in formal art classes. Although he was not academically inclined, at around age ten he became interested in astronomy. After spotting Venus in the morning and evening sky during one summer spent at a relative's ranch in California's Ojai Valley, he researched what he had seen. When the imaginative Bonestell read about the nebular hypothesis of 18th-century French mathematician Pierre Laplace—that the solar system was formed from a spinning gaseous cloud—he was hooked.
Together with his father and two sisters, Bonestell would survive the earthquake and fire that destroyed 500 square blocks of San Francisco in 1906, but the event was still tragic for the then-18-year-old artist: many of his drawings and paintings—including his paintings of Saturn—were destroyed. Hoping to guide his grandson into a suitable line of work, Bonestell's grandfather now arranged for the young man to attend Columbia University. During the late summer of 1907, Bonestell boarded a train for New York City and joined Columbia's class of 1911.
Bonestell survived three years of architectural training but left Columbia during his junior year. Returning to San Francisco, he then married Mary Hilton; although they produced a daughter, Jane, they would divorce in 1918. He continued to work on his art and between 1915 and 1918 exhibited several works in exhibitions staged by the California Society of Etchers. By 1922, Bonestell was living in England, creating architectural illustrations for the Illustrated London News. There he met and married Ruby Helder, a young opera singer, and the couple traveled extensively in Italy in 1925. Returning to New York City soon after, he worked for several of the city's leading architectural firms, including with William van Alen, who teamed him with Warren Straton to design the distinctive façade of the Art Deco-styled Chrysler Building. During this same period, he helped design several office, government, and apartment buildings, including the controversial Beaux Arts New York Central Building. When the U.S. stock market collapsed in October of 1929 and work in Manhattan slowed in response to the Great Depression, the Bonestells relocated to the west coast. There, he worked with chief engineer Joseph Strauss to render plans for the Golden Gate Bridge that could help translate blueprints into a vision capable of building confidence among the project's funders.
Turning 50 in 1938, Bonestell contacted an executive from RKO Pictures and started a second career as a special-effects artist in Hollywood. He was hired on the spot because his training in architecture enabled him to render accurate perspective and visual angles in large formats. Bonestell quickly became the highest-paid “matte artist” in Tinseltown, creating the painted canvas backdrops that set the stage for scenes in films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Swiss Family Robinson (1940), Orson Welles's highly acclaimed Citizen Kane (1941), and Welles's epic 1942 adaptation of Booth Tarkington's family saga, The Magnificent Ambersons. Sadly, his wife Ruby died shortly after Bonestell started his Hollywood career, but he soon reunited with his first wife, Mary Hilton Bonestell. During his time working in motion-picture art, he did work for all the top studios, including Columbia, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, and through wise money management he became financially secure for life.
Meanwhile, during the 1920s, Bonestell had discovered the work of Lucien Rudaux (1874–1947), a French astronomer and space art enthusiast whose paintings of the moon were collected into the book Sur les Autres Mondes (“On Other Worlds”). While Rudaux was primarily a scientist and strove for realism in what he painted, Bonestell saw the dramatic potential in these lunar vistas, perhaps inspired by his Hollywood work. While constructing his large-scale canvas backdrops for various films (among his work was the haunting view of Rosebud featured in Citizen Kane), he refined his space-painting techniques, and his landscapes of the moon and Mars would show the effects of his film work through their dramatic use of color and texture, among other imaginative elements.
One of Bonestell's final projects for Hollywood was working as a special-effects artist and technical adviser to George Pal's award-winning 1950 film Destination Moon, a film directed by George Pal that won an Academy Award for special effects. He collaborated with Pal on several more sci-fi films, including War of the Worlds (1953), Cat-Women of the Moon (1953), and Conquest of Space (1955), and in 1985 would appear in the documentary film The Fantasy Film Worlds of George Pal. Bonestell's one foray into television was Men into Space, a black-andwhite television series airing between 1959 and 1960 that tapped the American public's growing fascination with space travel.
During the mid-1940s, while still painting for Hollywood, Bonestell first began combining his knowledge of camera angles, miniature clay modeling, and new painting techniques with his lifelong interest in astronomy. Basing his paintings on satellite images, he created fantastical, otherworldly vistas that reflected the latest scientific theories. He also developed a grid system based on a spherical perspective that adjusted horizon lines and vanishing points and created the illusion that his spacescapes were being viewed from a high altitude. His first major work, a series of paintings of Saturn, as seen from several of its moons, ran in Life magazine on May 29, 1944, capturing the imagination of the nation. As noted in an International Association of Astronomical Artists biography, Bonestell recalled of his transition from Hollywood to the stars: “As my knowledge of the technical side of the motion picture industry broadened, I realized I could apply camera angles as used in the motion pictures studio and illustrate ‘travel’ from satellite to satellite, showing Saturn exactly as it would look.”
Not surprisingly, Bonestell's work fueled many popular fears of an apocalypse and it also inspired many science-fiction writers of the day. In the article, he also strayed from known fact into science fiction, presenting an aerial view of Chicago in which Lake Michigan has evaporated due to the scorching heat caused by an enlarged sun. Positing this scientifically questionable occurrence as a possibility, he provided an explanation. “According to astronomers, internal disturbances may suddenly cause the Sun to expand to as much as three times its normal size.”
Several of Bonestell's paintings, illustrating articles by German-born science writer Willy Ley, were collected in the best-selling books The Conquest of Space (1949), The Exploration of Mars, and Beyond the Solar System (1964). Capturing the public imagination with its descriptive subtitle, “A Preview of the Greatest Adventure Awaiting Mankind; With Text and Pictures Based on the Latest Scientific Research,” The Conquest of Space made space travel seem real, as readers turned from a scene showing spacesuitwearing astronauts traversing a fantastical Martian terrain to a photorealistic image wherein gleaming spaceships stood like spires on the surface of Earth's moon. Highly sought after by collectors, this book inspired many young space buffs to make aerospace their career.
Beginning with the October 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction and continuing into the 1970s, more than 60 of Bonestell's paintings appeared on the cover of popular science-fiction magazines, among them Amazing Stories and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. As quoted by Thomas J. Sherrill in Sky & Telescope, noted astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan once remarked of Bonestell that “I didn't know what other worlds looked like until I saw Bonestell's paintings of the solar system.”
When well-known German scientist Wernher von Braun (1912–1977), developer of the V2 rocket, organized a space-flight symposium for Collier's magazine during the early 1950s, he invited Bonestell to illustrate several of the concepts to be addressed. By demonstrating that the advance of technology had brought manned space flight within the realm of possibility, Collier's symposium became a series of articles that ran from 1952 to 1954 under the title “Man Will Conquer Space Soon!” This series is credited with sparking interest in President Dwight D. Eisenhower's yet-unfunded civilian space program, and it inspired a generation of boys to aspire to become astronauts. Articles from the Collier's series were collected in book form as Conquest of the Moon (1953). The USSR launched the world's first artificial satellite, Sputnik, a few years later, on October 4, 1957.
Bonestell continued to work as a space artist into his later years. In 1956 he was commissioned to create a mural for the Boston Museum of Science; eventually damaged, this 10-foot-by-40-foot painting was restored by the National Air & Space Museum and remains on exhibit. During his lifetime, he was also honored for inspiring interest in the field of astronautics by the British Interplanetary Society, the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, and the International Space Hall of Fame, to which he was inducted posthumously in 1989. As an artist, his film work holds a foundational place in the history of special effects, and his paintings are included in private collections as well as exhibited at the National Air and Space Museum and the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts.
After Bonestell's wife Mary died in 1961, he moved to Berkeley, California, and the following September married Hulda Von Neumayer Ray. Ray was a photographer and a friend from childhood; her father had sat for a portrait painted by Bonestell in 1915. The couple relocated from Berkeley to Carmel, California, in 1968 and Bonestell spent much of his free time painting, sometimes from nature and sometimes from his imagination. During the early 1970s, he completed a set of 22 paintings inspired by his interest in California's historic missions. He died at his home in Carmel on June 11, 1986.
Durant, Frederick C., III, and Ron Miller, Worlds Beyond: The Art of Chesley Bonestell, Walsworth Publishing, 1983, new edition, foreword by Melvin H. Schuetz, Paper Tiger Press, 2001.
McCurdy, Howard E., Space and the American Imagination, second edition, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
Miller, Ron, The Art of Space: The History of Space Art, from the Earliest Visions to the Graphics of the Modern Era, Zenith Press, 2014.
Astronomy, July 2004, Andrew Fazekas, “Visions of Space: Explore Unseen World through the Eyes of Artists Trained to Understand What Might Be beyond the Reach of Telescopes,” p. 78.
Coronet,July 1947, Chesley Bonestell, “The End of the World.”
Reason, February 2012, Gregory Benford, “Science Fiction Faces Facts: NASA Has Fizzled, but Wernher von Braun's Exuberant Vision Lives On,” pp. 45–48.
Sky & Telescope, June 2006, Thomas J. Sherrill, “Envisioning the End of the World,” p. 36; April 2010, Michael Carroll, “Imagining Other Worlds,” pp. 56–60.
Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/meet-the-father-of-modern-space-art (May 27, 2016), Erik Shilling, “Meet the Father of Space Art.”
International Association of Astronomical Artists, https://iaaa.org/rudaux-award/ (January 11, 2018), “Rudaux Award: Chesley Bonestell.”□