Painting the Future: Chesley Bonestell and Catherine Newell’s New Book, Destined for the Stars

Painting the Future: Chesley Bonestell and Catherine Newell’s New Book, <i>Destined for the Stars</i>

Painting the Future: Chesley Bonestell and Catherine Newell’s New Book, Destined for the Stars

In Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier, author Catherine L. Newell explores what drove the United States to rapidly expand its space exploration plans—in particular, she looks at the roles of religious faith and mankind’s desire to explore new frontiers. By “recasting the space race as an inherently spiritual endeavor, Newell exposes and explains the origins of the language of ‘divine destiny’—which imbues much of the modern talk of visiting other planets today” (Publishers Weekly).

One of the major players in Destined for the Stars is Chesley Bonestell (1888–1986), whose astronomical art was extremely influential during the Golden Age of space exploration in the mid-twentieth century. Bonestell began his career as an architect, taking part in major projects like the Chrysler Building and the Golden Gate Bridge. But his passion as an amateur astronomer began to draw him away from architecture and toward speculative, astronomical art. In the 1930s, he left architecture to work as a special effects and background artist in Hollywood.

Exploring Mars, 1953. Bonestell LLC reproduction.
Exploring Mars, 1953. Bonestell LLC reproduction.

Bonestell created art for films including The War of the Worlds (1953) and Conquest of Space (1955). He also began creating paintings set on different planets and satellites. He drew heavily from art of the American West created in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, particularly the Hudson River school paintings that depicted the vast, untamed wilderness of the United States. Common features include sweeping and colorful landscapes that make the humans in the composition look microscopic in comparison.

His great attention to geological and atmospheric detail gave increased scientific value to these paintings, providing both beautiful and realistic depictions of the yet-unexplored final frontier. Among his most famous paintings is Saturn as Seen from Titan (1943), known as “the painting that launched a thousand careers,” for inspiring an entire generation of scientists and astronauts.

<i>Saturn as Seen from Titan</i>, 1943. Bonestell LLC reproduction.
Saturn as Seen from Titan, 1943. Bonestell LLC reproduction.

Bonestell died in 1986, but his legacy remains in the forms of the annual Chesley Awards (awarded by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists) as well as a crater on Mars and an asteroid named in his honor. His paintings still influence how Western society looks at space exploration. A documentary on his life, Chesley Bonestell: A Brush with the Future, was released in 2018 and features commentary by Newell. Learn more about the documentary and about Bonestell’s work and legacy at http://www.chesleybonestell.com/.

Newell’s Destined for the Stars also covers the connections between Bonestell, science fiction author Willy Ley, and Nazi scientist–turned–NASA rocket developer Wernher von Braun, and how religious faith influenced America’s divine calling into outer space.

Destined for the Stars: Faith, the Future, and America’s Final Frontier by Catherine Newell is on sale now.