Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was a painter, designer, and illustrator. His paintings were a major influence on science fiction art and illustration, and he helped inspire the American space program.
Bonestell studied architecture at Columbia University in New York City. Dropping out in his third year, he worked as a renderer and designer for several of the leading architectural firms of the time. While with William van Alen, he designed the façade of the Chrysler Building as well as its distinctive gargoyles. Returning to the west coast, he worked on the Golden Gate Bridge, where he illustrated all of the stages of the bridge's construction as well as contributing to the final design.
When the Great Depression dried up architectural work in the United States, Bonestell went to England, where he rendered architectural subjects for the Illustrated London News. In the late 1930s he moved to Hollywood, where he used his talent for realistic painting to work as a special effects artist, creating matte paintings for such films as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Bonestell then realized that he could combine what he had learned about camera angles and painting techniques with his lifelong interest in astronomy. The result was a series of paintings of Saturn as seen from several of its moons that was published in Life in 1944. Nothing like these had ever been seen before: they looked as though photographers had been sent into space. Bonestell followed up the sensation these paintings created by publishing more paintings in many leading national magazines. These and others were eventually collected in the best-selling book The Conquest of Space (1950). Bonestell's last work in Hollywood was contributing special effects art and technical advice to the seminal science fiction films produced by George Pál, including Destination Moon.
When Wernher von Braun organized a space flight symposium for Collier's Magazine, he invited Bonestell to illustrate his concepts for the future of spaceflight. For the first time, spaceflight was shown to be a matter of the near future. Von Braun and Bonestell showed that it could be accomplished with the technology then existing in the mid-1950s, and that the question was that of money and will. Coming as they did at the beginning of the Cold War and just before the sobering shock of the launch of Sputnik, the Collier's series were instrumental in kick-starting America's space program.
Bonestell died in 1986 with an unfinished painting on his easel. By then he had been honored internationally for the contribution he made to the birth of modern astronautics, from a bronze medal awarded by the British Interplanetary Society to a place in the International Space Hall of Fame to an asteroid named for him. His paintings are prized by collectors and institutions such as the National Air and Space Museum and the National Collection of Fine Arts. One of his classic paintings, an ethereally beautiful image of Saturn seen from its giant moon Titan, has been called "the painting that launched a thousand careers." Wernher von Braun wrote that he had "learned to respect, nay fear, this wonderful artist's obsession with perfection. My file cabinet is filled with sketches of rocket ships I had prepared to help in his artwork—only to have them returned to me with…blistering criticism."