News for December
Griffin In Flight
Wings of Wonder
Chesley BonestellArtist Spotlight
by Giovanna Adams
Chesley Bonestell was a painter, designer and illustrator. His paintings were a major influence on science fiction art and illustration. His art also helped inspire the American space program.
Chelsey was born in San Francisco, California. His first astronomical painting was done in 1905. After seeing Saturn through the 12-inch (300 mm) telescope at San Jose's Lick Observatory, he rushed home to paint what he had seen (1).
During the Great Depression, Chesley found himself in England where he worked as an artist specializing in architectural subjects for the Illustrated London News. This same magazine was also publishing astronomical illustrations painted by Scriven Bolton and Frenchman Lucien Rudaux, and Chesley found his old interest in astronomy reawakened. After returning to the States in the late 1930s, he became Hollywood's highest paid special effects artist, working on such classics as the original Hunchback of Notre Dame, Citizen Kane, Destination Moon and War of the Worlds through the 1950's (2).
Bonestell quickly realized that he could combine the knowledge of perspective, light and shade from his experience in architectural rendering with the techniques he was now learning about camera angles and oil painting to create an entirely new kind of astronomical art. "The planets of our Solar System," he said, "had never been accurately depicted from their satellites. Always before it had been an 'artist's conception'..." He began researching the subject and filled sketchbooks with exquisite oil sketches of the planets. He took his first set of paintings - an imaginary journey to the planet Saturn - to Life magazine, which promptly paid him $30,000 for the use of the artwork. One of these paintings, a view of Saturn seen from its giant moon Titan, has been such a seminal influence on the development of spaceflight and astronomical art that space art entrepreneur Kim Poor has described it as "the painting that launched a thousand careers." It has been reprinted scores of times in the fifty years since its first publication and requests for it still arrive every month (3).
Chesley collected 58 of his paintings in book form. The Conquest of Space, with a text by space expert Willy Ley, was published in 1950 and became an immediate best-seller. "Chesley Bonestell's paintings," Ley wrote in the book's introduction, "should not be considered 'artist's conceptions' in the customary sense of the phrase... but a picture which you might obtain if it were possible to get a very good camera with perfectly color-true film into the proper position and have it manned by a good photographer who could use just the right exposure with the proper artistic touch. It is obvious that this involves, not just a special talent, coupled with special studies, but really an entire life history." There are countless professional aerospace engineers and scientists working today who decided their careers when they saw The Conquest of Space when they were only eight or ten years old - such as Carl Sagan, who said he didn't know what other worlds looked like until he saw Bonestell's paintings of the solar system. Perhaps the extraordinary effect of Bonestell's paintings derived from his total absorption in the subject. "Sometimes when I am painting," he said, "I lose myself in the scene and feel for a little while that I am actually there." (4)
Meanwhile, Bonestell space paintings were appearing major magazines all over the United States. Scientific American, Pic, Coronet and Mechanix Illustrated all published covers and illustrations by Bonestell, as did many of the science fiction pulps, such as Astounding, Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Bonestell's artwork quickly began to define how the public perceived the future of spaceflight. Not only were his paintings as believable as the photos in National Geographic, there was a consistency in their vision that made it seem as though Bonestell had a direct feed from the future. Over the next few decades Bonestell created more than half a dozen other books, though his masterwork was the 40-foot mural of the lunar surface commissioned by the Museum of Science in Boston. The painting is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum which plans to restore the mural for display in the museum's new annex near Dulles International Airport (5).
Bonestell's final years were piled with honors. He received a Special Award and medallion, as well as a bronze medal, from the British Interplanetary Society; the Dorothy Klumke-Roberts Award from the Astronomical Society of the Pacific; and his own eponymous asteroid. In the renaming of the former asteroid, Carl Sagan commented that "it is only fitting that we give back a world to Bonestell, who has given us so many." Posthumously, Bonestell was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and made a member of the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame, where he joined such luminaries as N.C. Wyeth and Norman Rockwell.
The International Association of Astronomical Artists made Bonestell one of the first five recipients of their prestigious Lucien Rudaux Memorial Award, in recognition of his seminal contributions to their genre. There has even been a rock and roll song in his honor. "I believe," he once said, "that everyone, to be happy through life, should have a hobby to enjoy until death. Then, at least from a purely selfish standpoint, your life will be a success."
Bonestell's hobby not only brought him pleasure, it changed the world.
1) Miller, Ron and Frederick C. Durant III (1983), Worlds Beyond: The Art of Chesley Bonestell, Walsworth Pub Co ISBN-13: 978-0898651959
2) Miller, Ron and Frederick C. Durant III (1983), Worlds Beyond: The Art of Chesley Bonestell, Walsworth Pub Co ISBN-13: 978-0898651959
3) Miller, Ron and Frederick C. Durant III (2001), The Art of Chesley Bonestell (Forward by Melvin H. Schuetz), Paper Tiger ISBN-13: 978-1855858848
4) Schuetz, Melvin H. (1999), Chesley Bonestell Space Art Chronology, Universal Publishers ISBN-13: 978-1581128291
5) Schuetz, Melvin H. (1999), Chesley Bonestell Space Art Chronology, Universal Publishers ISBN-13: 978-1581128291
6) Schuetz, Melvin H. (2003), Supplement to A Chesley Bonestell Space Art Chronology ASIN: B0006S65MS
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