As I get a little older, I’m increasingly impressed with the changes in the world that a person can see in the course of a single lifetime. I have always been amazed that my grandfather, who was born at a time when it was still a matter of debate whether heavier-than-air flight was even possible (1889), lived to see human beings step foot on the moon.
The same can be said for Chesley Bonestell (pronounced bonn-e-stell) who was born in 1888 and not only lived to see men land on the moon, but helped make it possible. It was his visionary paintings of how space travel might look that helped convince congress that the space program was possible and worth funding.
At a time when most airplanes were still driven by propellors, Bonestell created a series of strikingly photo-realistic paintings of scientifically feasible designs for multi-stage rockets, orbital space stations, spaceships and lunar landing proceedures based on sketches on graph paper by Wernher von Braun, with whom Bonestell worked closely.
He also created a celebrated series of Colliers’ magazine covers and illustrations for articles by von Braun based on the same concepts.
Bonestell is the undisputed father of space art. If you were raised in the post-Star Wars era, you take space art and science fiction concept art for granted. If you are a baby-boomer, however, chances are that it was Bonestell’s images that fired your imagination about space travel and the lure of other worlds, whether you encountered them in Life Magazine, Collier’s, on the covers of science fiction magazines or in wonderful illustrated books like Willy Ley’s Conquest of Space.
Bonestell was trained as an architect and worked on the Golden Gate Bridge and the Chrysler Tower. When the depression made architectural work difficult to come by, he transitioned his talents to special effects matte painting, working on films like Citizen Kane (1941), The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951) and War of the Worlds (1953); but it is for his prophetic and still inspiring space art that he is most revered.
The Chesley Awards, given each year by the members of the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists in recognition of the best in the field, are named in his honor. (A collection, The Chesley Awards for Science Fiction and Fantasy Art: A Retrospective, was published a couple of years ago.)
There is an offical Bonestell Space Art site and a site for Bonestell archives of Melvin H. Scheutz, but the best reproductions I’ve found on the web are the previews of these Bonestell prints from Dreamstone, and these Bonestell prints from NovaSpace.
You cannot get a true picture of the imaginative brilliance of Bonestell’s space art, or the surprising breadth of his artistic range (from architectural renderings of the Golden Gate bridge and New York skyscrapers, to beautiful portraits, idyllic landscapes and architectural fantasies) by looking at the few small scraps of his work available online.
There is a superb and beautifully printed book from Paper Tiger: The Art of Chesley Bonestell by Frederick C. Durant III and Melvin H. Schuetz that really strives to reveal the scope, beauty and astonishingly visionary quality of Bonestell’s work.