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Original Creators: Father Of Modern Space Art Chesley Bonestell

We take a look at some iconic artists from numerous disciplines who have left an enduring and indelible mark on today’s Creators.

Each week we pay homage to a select "Original Creator," an iconic artist from days gone by whose work influences and informs today's creators. These are artists who were innovative and revolutionary in their fields—bold visionaries and radicals, groundbreaking frontiersmen and women who inspired and informed culture as we know it today. This week: Chesley Bonestell.

“I didn’t know what other worlds looked like until I saw Bonestell’s paintings.” —Carl Sagan


For centuries, outer space has been influencing thousands of people around the globe, from science fiction writers to modern day artists, resulting in realistic depictions of the cosmos or exaggerated fantasies of alien landscapes. For many decades, practitioners of space art have explored the universe in their imaginations, using a wide array of mediums. Among the most influent artists involved in visualizing space exploration, one thinks of French astronomer Lucien Rudaux, Ludek Pesek, and of course Chesley Bonestell. The latter is mostly known for helping to popularize manned space travel, his cover art for science fiction magazines including Collier’s, Coronet, Astounding Science Fiction, and for his special effects matte paintings for films such as Citizen Kane and War of the Worlds.

An illustration from Collier’s.

An Early Obsession

Born in 1888, Chesley Bonestell soon discovered his passion for astronomy and made his first space painting at the age of 17. His first astronomical representation was of the planet Saturn, which he had viewed through a 30-centimeter telescope at San Jose’s Lick Observatory. Inspired by the ringed planet, he rushed home to paint it. Although this work was destroyed in a fire resulting from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Bonestell’s obsession with otherwordly celestial bodies never stopped.

Educated as an architect, he soon dropped out to become a designer for several prominents architectural firms, working on the Art Deco facade of the Chrysler Building in New York City, and others landmark buildings such as the Plymouth Rock Memorial in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and the US Supreme Court Building in Washington D.C.. During the Great Depression, he found himself in England where he worked for The Illustrated London News, which was also publishing astronomical illustrations from artists such as Scriven Bolton and Lucien Rudaux. After moving to Hollywood, he began creating matte paintings for films such as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), thus gaining some insight into film technique and miniature modeling.


Saturn as depicted by Chesley Bonestell.

Back to Visual Astronomy

It was at that moment that Bonestell thought of combining these techniques with his eternal interest in astronomy, and created a series of paintings that were published in Life. These artworks depicted the first planet he ever painted: Saturn, as seen with several of its moons. His work was widely acclaimed for its striking realism—for once, renderings of the planets made them look like real places, and not mere abstractions issued from an artist’s imagination. These paintings had a great influence on the development of spaceflight and astronomical art, fuelling the dreams of many aspiring space explorers. Bonestell pursued his space artist career by publishing more paintings for magazines, and others publications such as the speculative science book The Conquest of Space (1949).

Many astronomers and writers such as Arthur C. Clarke marvelled at his remarkable technique, and many people mistook his works for actual color photographs. Later on, Bonestell took part in a space flight symposium for Collier’s, and was invited to illustrate concepts by German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. This resulted in a series of articles demonstrating that space flight was not a goal for the distant future, but a close reality.

An Enduring Legacy

Before he died in 1986 with an unfinished painting on his easel, Bonestell received honors from the British Interplanetary Society. A crater on Mars and the asteroid 3129 Bonestell were also named after him. As the world famous cosmologist Carl Sagan commented, “It is only fitting that we give back a world to Bonestell, who has given us so many.” Nowadays, many space artists still quote Bonestell as a major influence, including artist and animator Donald Davis.

All pictures © 2012 Bonestell Space Art.