Illustrator of the Cosmos

In an earlier post I discussed the artwork of Chesley Bonestell and his first major volume The Conquest of Space (1949), with text by scientist Willy Ley. I recently came across another collaborative work, Beyond Jupiter (1972), written by the famed author Arthur C. Clarke. The book detailed plans for the Voyager 1 probe, which was eventually launched five years later.

In comparison with younger space artists, Bonestell favored a softer (one might almost say “warmer”) technique that stemmed from the early 20th century illustration styles in which he was trained. Take for example his painting of Uranus as seen from the satellite Umbriel, which shows the mother planet perfectly framed by the dramatic cliffs of a lunar landscape. It is realistic in detail but it is also “nature idealized” in the tradition of classical Western art. And it is that which perhaps gives great paintings an advantage over even the best photography.

Looking back, I realize that my imagination was fired more by the illustrations of science and science fantasy than the writings (let alone films, which were still relatively clumsy in their depiction of outer space before the Star Wars era). Unlike a book or movie, where someone else controls the story, we can populate the painted landscape with our uniquely personal hopes, feelings and visions.

I appreciated Clarke’s tribute to the artist which appears in the foreword to Beyond Jupiter:

Sometime around 1944… a tattered issue of Life magazine fell into my hands. It contained pages of stunning color pictures… of the ringed planet Saturn, as viewed from its various moons. Although I had seen similar pictures before, these were in a class by themselves, and for a long time I had them pinned up on the wall of my billet…. I had never heard of the artist, Chesley Bonestell, but thereafter I looked out for his work and collected it whenever the opportunity arose. A few years later, I was delighted to hear from my friend Willy Ley that he was writing the text to go with a book of Bonestell’s paintings. Conquest of Space… probably did more than any book of its time to convey to a whole generation the wonder, romance and sheer beauty of space travel.

I am happy to note that more is being done with the official Bonestell site (including an image gallery) and the artist’s estate will finally be releasing some new prints to the public.

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