THE COLORS OF SPACE


Been reflecting more than usual and I thought I'd pay tribute to an artist about whom nothing is written these days. Yet he was as influential as John Glenn at inspiring both young and old to embrace the incipient space program with passionate intensity. Chesley Knight Bonestell (Okay, okay...pretty unusual name! I think the only other Chesley I know about was heroic pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger!) was a painter who specialized in landscapes of distant planets and visions from deep space. His first space painting was actually destroyed in the fire that consumed San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake, when Chesley was still a teen! He had a conventional career as an architect and contributed to the design of many famous buildings and memorials.

He spent some time in England during the Depression years and then returned to the US to become a set designer in Hollywood during the 1940s. He even contributed to Orson Welles' productions of Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons! In the late 1940s, Bonestell started turning out moonscapes, images of Saturn's rings, and other interstellar efforts. The burgeoning science-fiction world grabbed him right away. His paintings became covers on such pulp magazines as Astounding Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Even Life Magazine printed a Bonestell painting of Saturn as seen from one of its moons. This painting has been cited as "the painting that launched a thousand careers. It certainly fired up the imaginations of many a young man, and likely more than a few young women. (See Below)

I used to take the oversized tome The Conquest of Space out of the library quite frequently just to pore over the magnificent color plates. The book, written by Willy Ley, was an introduction to the wonders of the Space Age.

Bonestell became an advisor to legendary film director George Pal and contributed to such space classics as Destination Moon, When Worlds Collide, and The War of the Worlds. As early as 1965 I couldn't wait for the arrival of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. The images in that film practically put me into a catatonic state when I saw it for the first of seventeen times in the theatre alone! I have no doubt that Bonestell's paintings inspired the set designers and matte artists on 2001.

Bonestell died in Carmel, California in 1986 at the age of 98, but before he died he had both a crater on Mars and an asteroid named in his honor! Legendary SF writer Robert Heinlein employed his last name as a verb in works like Stranger in a Strange Land, and the writers of Star Trek: The Next Generation named a spaceport after Chesley. All these honors were duly earned by one of the great artists of his time. Below: A Bonestell magazine cover and a YouTube tribute.