The artist and architect Chesley Bonestell painted scenes of space exploration that inspired an entire generation of astronomers, artists, writers, engineers and visionaries. If you’re over a certain age, you have doubtless seen his work, and if you’re a dedicated stargazer and space enthusiast, you were likely inspired by his vision of space travel. But Bonestell was more than a starry-eyed dreamer. He was an architectural artist, and he also helped the great rocket engineer Wernher von Braun develop his ideas by fleshing out von Braun’s sketches of moon rockets, satellites, and interplanetary spacecraft.
Bonestell was born in 1888 in San Francisco, California. As a young man, he hiked to Lick Observatory, a long way in those days before automobile travel, where he first saw Saturn through the observatory’s 12-inch refractor. Like many who first see Saturn, he was entranced and he rushed home to paint what he’d seen. This historic painting was lost in the fires following the 1906 San Francisco 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, he 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.
** NOTE: You can see much of Bonestell’s work at this link: https://www.bonestell.org/ **
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 to the Saturnian system to capture these images.
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.
Bonestell also painted many sublime scenes, including hypothetical Moon landings and construction of space stations in Earth orbit. He 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 easel.