Find, Learn, Price Art
Enjoy the comprehensive art database we've compiled since 1987
Membership Details
Images, sales charts, bios, signatures, 30 artist Alerts and more ...
Art auction records:  Millions of references for pricing research
Or, register for Free Alerts
To track 10 artists.

Already a member?  Sign in here

Chesley Knight Bonestell

 (1888 - 1986)
Chesley Knight Bonestell was active/lived in California, New York.  Chesley Bonestell is known for science fiction, outer space theme illustration, spacescape painting.

Chesley Knight Bonestell

Biography from the Archives of askART

Biography photo for Chesley Knight Bonestell
If Lucian Rudaux was the Grandfather of space art, Chesley Bonestell was the father. He was born on January 1, 1888, 15 years before the Wright brothers first flew and 38 years before the launch of the first liquid-fuel rocket. When he died 98 years later, men had walked on the moon and spacecraft had visited most of the planets and many of the moons of the solar system.

Bonestell's paintings not only anticipated 20th century space exploration, they helped to bring it about. So realistic were his depictions of other worlds that visiting them no longer seemed fantasy. His artwork looked like picture postcards taken by some future astronaut.

Bonestell started drawing at age five and be­gan formal art instruction by the time he was 12. When he was 17, he visited Lick Observatory where he was in­spired by seeing Saturn through the observatory's giant refractors. As soon as he returned home, Bonestell sketched a picture of the planet as he had observed it—probably his first attempt at space art.

Bonestell eventually became an architectural designer and renderer. One of his first professional jobs was working with the legendary Willis Polk on the reconstruction of San Francisco after the great earthquake and fire. Polk quickly made Bonestell his chief designer. In New York, Bonestell assisted Wil­liam van Alen in the design of the Chrysler Building (its famous gargoyles are Bonestell's work). Later, Bonestell worked on the Golden Gate Bridge.

During this time, he kept up his interest in astronomy, filling sketchbooks with extraterrestrial scenes, like this one:

In 1938, Bonestell began a new career in Hollywood as a spe­cial effects matte painter. The first film he worked on was Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. All the views of turn-of-the-century New York and of Charles Foster Kane's mansion, Xan­adu, are Bonestell's artwork. In The Fountainhead, Bonestell in a sense was Howard Roark: all of the buildings created by Ayn Rand's super-heroic architect are by Bonestell. He eventually became Hollywood's highest-paid matte artist.

After his success as an astronomical artist, Bonestell returned to Hollywood to provide spe­cial effects art for George Pal’s Destination Moon, War of the Worlds and When Worlds Collide. The complete panoramic matte painting for the latter is here, and an unused alternate version below:

It occurred to him that he could employ what he’d learned as a special effects artist to create astronomical art with a level of realism never seen before. "As my knowledge of the technical side of the motion picture industry broadened,” he wrote, “I realized I could ap­ply camera angles as used in the motion picture studio to il­lustrate 'travel' from satellite to satellite, showing Saturn ex­actly as it would look, and at the same time I could add inter­est by showing the inner satellites or outer ones on the far side of Saturn, as well as the planet itself in different phas­es."

For instance, he often employed a laborious technique of constructing detailed model landscapes, which he then photographed, painting over the final print. This resulted in a level of realism that was utterly convincing. It was a laborious technique, however, that he seldom used after the 1950s.

This project resulted in his first published space art, a series of paintings depicting scenes on Saturn’s moons, that appeared in the May 29,1944, issue of Life. The public—to say nothing of science fiction fans—were astonished and delighted. Among the paintings was a ethereally beautiful view of Saturn seen from Titan. Inspiring an entire generation of scientists and space enthusiasts—countless scientists, engineers and astronauts have been inspired in their choice of careers by Bonestell's images, including a young Carl Sagan—it has been called “the painting that launched a thousand careers.”

Around this time, Bonestell began a long-term collabora­tion with Willy Ley, an expatriate German historian and sci­ence popularizer who had been a member of the German Spaceflight Society (Verein fur Raumschiffahrt). Taking advantage of Ley's advice, Bonestell began adding spacecraft to his paintings. In 1946 Life published another set of his il­lustrations, this time depicting a manned flight to the moon.

Bonestell's art began appearing regularly in magazines, from Look, Coronet, Pic and Mechanix Illustrated to Air Trails, Scientific American and Astounding Science Fiction. So popular had his art become that Bonestell once mistakenly sent the cover painting for a science-fiction magazine to the wrong publication. The editor of that magazine promptly ran it! Bonestell's first book, The Conquest of Space, created in collaboration with Ley, featured 48 of his paintings. It became an immediate best-seller. The cover painting has become one of the iconic images of the 1950s:

In addition to the artwork he was creating for books, magazines and movies, Bonestell created a magnificent mural for the Boston Museum of Science. Forty feet wide, it depicted a lunar landscape with breathtaking realism. The mural was removed after the Apollo 11 landing in 1969 because “it was no longer accurate.” The mural is now in the collection of the National Air & Space Museum, where plans are being made to restore and display it.

Sir Arthur C. Clarke tried to explain Bonestell’s popularity at this time by saying that his “...remarkable technique produces an effect of realism so strik­ing that his paintings have sometimes been mistaken for ac­tual colour photographs by those slightly unacquainted with the present status of interplanetary flight.... In the years to come it is probably destined to fire many imaginations, and thereby to change many lives."

Clarke was only too right. In 1951 Cornelius Ryan, the asso­ciate editor of Collier's magazine, invited Bonestell to illus­trate a series of five articles on the future of spaceflight. The prime author was Wernher von Braun.

Just as Clarke had been, von Braun found himself awed by Bonestell's sharp eye for scientific and engineering accuracy. He once wrote that "Chesley Bonestell's pictures... are far more than reproductions of beautiful ethereal paintings of Worlds Beyond. They present the most accurate portrayal of those faraway heavenly bodies that modern science can offer. I do not say this lightly. In my many years of association with Chesley I have 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 him in his art work—only to have them returned to me with pene­trating detailed questions or blistering criticism of some in­consistency or oversight."

The Collier's series—published between 1952 and 1954—took America by storm. The country turned space-happy; reproductions and knockoffs of Bonestell's paintings appeared in settings ranging from commercial advertise­ments to television programs to school lunch boxes. The series was eventually collected in three books: Across the Space Frontier, Conquest of the Moon and Exploration of Mars, now all collector’s items. Bonestell's artwork strongly influenced the American pub­lic and, in turn, the government to support an investment in space exploration. An influence that has been repeatedly acknowledged.

Over the following decade Bonestell watched manned space explo­ration become a reality. He grumpily noticed that the softly rolling lu­nar hills seen by the Apollo astronauts bore little resemblance to the craggy, romanticized, Doresque landscapes he had painted. But such inaccuracies do little to diminish the primary importance of Bonestell's work. His illustrations gave immediacy and veri­similitude to dry astronomical data. What had once been columns of numbers and blurry telescopic images took on a new, compelling reality.

Bonestell continued to work until he died in 1986, an un­finished painting still on his easel. Asteroid number 3129 and a crater on Mars have been given the name "Bonestell"—a fitting honor for the man whose art contributed to the birth of the space age.

Ron Miller, "The Artist Who Helped Invent Space Travel," i09 We Come From the Future, Web, March 2016

Biography from the Archives of askART
Biography photo for Chesley Knight Bonestell
Chesley Bonestell (1888-1986) was an American pioneer of space art who helped popularize manned space travel. He is well known for his cover art for science fiction magazines including Astounding Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as many books such as The Conquest of Space, The Exploration of Mars, and Beyond the Solar System in collaboration with several authors well known in the field of space exploration.

Bonestell's work also includes architectural paintings, scientific illustrations, and special effects matte paintings for films such as Destination Moon (1950), When Worlds Collide (1951), and War of the Worlds (1953).

Born in San Francisco, Chesley Bonestell became a painter, etcher and designer and quickly became known for his skill with fantasy and space subjects. He was a student at the Mark Hopkins Institute, and leaning on his early interest in astronomy, he used this subject as his primary focus in his early artwork.

He also studied architecture at Columbia University and was hired by Willis Polk in Berkeley to serve as chief designer. He worked for Hollywood studios as a matte artist from 1938 to the 1950s and did backgrounds and special effects for outer-space themed movies.

In the latter part of his career, he became a noted illustrator of these subjects while living on the Monterey Peninsula.

Bonestell received a bronze medal from the British Interplanetary Society, a Special Achievement Hugo Award, and was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame and the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

The Association of Science Fiction & Fantasy Artists' Chesley Award for achievement in science fiction and fantasy art is named for him, and a crater on Mars and asteroid 3129 Bonestell are also named in his honor.

His work is in the Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago.

Films with artwork by Bonestell
    •    The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)
    •    Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
    •    Swiss Family Robinson (1940)
    •    Citizen Kane (1941)
    •    The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)
    •    Destination Moon (1950)
    •    War of the Worlds (1953)
    •    Cat-Women of the Moon (1953)
    •    Conquest of Space (1955)
    •    Men into Space (TV series, 1959–60)

"Chesley Bonestell," Web, March, 2016
"Chesley Bonestell," Wikipedia, Web, March 2016
Edan Milton Hughes, Artists in California, 1786-1940, Print

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at

Share an image of the Artist

  Full access to biographies is
  free each Friday

About  Chesley Knight Bonestell

Born:  1888 - San Francisco, California
Died:   1986 - Carmel-by-the-Sea, California
Known for:  science fiction, outer space theme illustration, spacescape painting

Essays referring to
Chesley Knight Bonestell

San Francisco Panama-Pacific Exhibition 1915