A Tribute to Chesley Bonestell (1888–1986)

Chesley Bonestell was born in San Francisco on January 1, 1888. That’s right, today is his 124th birthday!  Known as the Father of Modern Space Art, Bonestell’s photo-realistic images of distant worlds and spacecraft have fueled the imaginations of millions of people in the last 70 years. What is not generally known is that he prepared illustrations of the chief engineer’s plans for the Golden Gate Bridge which were used in fundraising.

I first became aware of Mr. Bonestell when I went to work at the Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District (GGBH&TD) in 1999. Hanging on the walls of the second floor hallway were some absolutely incredible construction paintings of the bridge and the Ft. Point Arch and they all bore the same signature: Chesley Bonestell. For several years I passed these paintings, often stopping to marvel at the detail and technique, always finding something new— an under-sea monster here, or a pair of mermaids there and semi-visible jellyfish everywhere.

One night, in the wee hours of a Graveyard shift, I spent some of my lunch time with a new thing called Google. I searched for information on Chesley Bonestell and found out that the man had four remarkable careers:

  • He dropped out of architecture school at Columbia University in New York City and worked with various firms designing the U.S. Supreme Court Building, several state capitals, office and apartment buildings, and the façade of the Chrysler building. It was at this point that he returned to San Francisco and went to work at the GGB. He also co-designed the famous 17-Mile Drive along the Monterey coast.
  • Lack of work during the The Great Depression caused Bonestell to move to England and start a second career rendering architectural subjects for the Illustrated London News.
  • Bonestell’s third career started in the late 1930s as a Matte Painter in Hollywood creating backgrounds and special effects. He often worked without screen credit creating matte paintings for films, including Citizen Kane, Destination Moon, and When Worlds Collide.
  • Chesley Bonestell’s fourth and final career started when he realized that he could combine his interest in Astronomy with his knowledge gained in Hollywood. In 1944 Life magazine published his painting, Saturn as Seen from Titan, and it inspired an entire generation of artists, engineers, writers and scientists.

Bonestell worked with Wernher von Braun, illustrating many of his engineering concepts. Wernher von Braun said, “Chesley Bonestell’s pictures … present the most accurate portrayal of those faraway heavenly bodies that modern science can offer.” Wernher went on to write 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.”

According to the International Space Hall of Fame: G. Harry Stine, engineer, author, and co-creator of the hobby of model rocketry, switched his college major from psychology to physics after seeing Bonestell’s book, The Conquest of Space. “Chesley Bonestell not only changed my life,” Stine said, “but motivated two generations of people to start the human race on its way to ultimate freedom among the stars.”

The British Interplanetary Society awarded a bronze medal to Chesley Bonestell and he  has a place in the International Space Hall of Fame. A crater on Mars and an asteroid (3129 Bonestell) are named in his honor.

Chesley Bonestell is an inspiration to me. He stuck with his life’s passion, Astronomy, and along the way he incorporated the knowledge he gained as he went through his life’s journey as an artist. We are left with a remarkable result, the fruits of a life lived well and enjoyed.

Thanks, Chesley, and Happy Birthday.

Golden Gate Bridge South Tower Pier under construction, copyright by Chesley Bonestell

  6 comments for “A Tribute to Chesley Bonestell (1888–1986)

  1. January 3, 2019 at 8:11 PM

    Thank you for this bio. Brought back many pleasant, but now distant, memories of times in the library reading books about space and marveling at Bonestell’s illustrations in them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • January 4, 2019 at 9:45 AM

      He was an extraordinary talent, no question about it. I loved the opportunity to stand and marvel at his paintings that are hung in the hallways of the GGB Admin building when I made my rounds in the middle of the night.

      His technique was flawless and if you looked closely you can find little bits and pieces of his humor in unlikely spots—e.g. mermaids and squids underwater around the South Tower Fender/Pier cut-away illustration.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Phyllis
    January 3, 2012 at 10:18 AM

    Thanks for sharing this info about Chelsey Bonestell and examples of his art. Quite an inspiration to keep evolving.


    • January 3, 2012 at 1:57 PM

      Thanks. Having the courage to follow your bliss is a big scary part of personal evolution.

      Sent from my iPhone


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