The artist and architect Chesley Bonestell painted scenes of space exploration that inspired an entire generation of astronomers, artists, writers, engineers and visionaries.
• Bonestell was born in 1888 in San Francisco, California. As a young man, he hiked to Lick Observatory, where he first saw Saturn through the 12-inch refractor. He rushed home to paint what he’d seen. This historic painting was lost in the fires following the 1906 earthquake.
• Bonestell (pronounced BONN-i-stell) trained as an architect at Columbia University, and earned a living in the 1930’s by rendering landmark engineering works like the Golden Gate Bridge.
• In the 1940’s, became Hollywood’s highest paid special effects artist, working on classic movies such as the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Citizen Kane, then Destination Moon and War of the Worlds.
A Deeper Look
• Bonestell learned to combine his artistic talent with his lifelong interest in astronomy. The result was a series of paintings of Saturn as it might be seen from several of its moons. Published in Life magazine in 1944, these stunning paintings were so realistic, it was as if a photographer had been sent into space.
• His painting of Saturn seen from the frosty moon Titan is perhaps the most famous astronomical landscape ever. This painting inspired thousands of bright young minds to study engineering and science during the 1950’s and ’60’s.
• He painted many sublime scenes, including hypothetical Moon landings and construction of space stations in Earth orbit. Bonestell often included tiny figures in his paintings for scale, illustrating the size of man against the immense vistas of space.
• Bonestell died in 1986, at the age of 98, with an unfinished painting on his eisel.
A Bit of History
Bonestell teamed up with Wernher von Braun, the leader of the team of German rocket engineers who came to the U.S. after World War II. Bonestell would flesh out von Braun’s sketches of moon rockets, satellites, and interplanetary spacecraft.
You may count me as one of the thousands inspired by Bonestell to take up studies of astronomy.