“I didn’t know what other worlds looked like until I saw Bonestell’s paintings of the solar system.” – Carl Sagan
What do the Golden Gate Bridge, The Chrysler Building, the film “Citizen Kane”, and America’s Space Program all have in common? They were touched by the hand of a wry-humored and slightly cantankerous artist named Chesley Bonestell.
Born in San Francisco in 1888, Chesley's early artistic talents had him doing small illustrations for Sunset Magazine. At age 17, he peered through a telescope at Lick Observatory and became inspired to paint what few people could see at that time: Saturn and its beautiful rings.
As fate would have it, his early work, along with an entire city, was destroyed in the Great Earthquake of 1906. He moved East and to pursue academic endeavors at Columbia University in New York. One evening in 1910, the heavens revealed another inspiration: Halley’s Comet. Streaking through the night skies, it made him ponder. He ended his studies early and returned to the West Coast to begin a career in architecture. There, he participated in the design of buildings and residences for noted architect Willis Polk, known as “The Man Who Rebuilt San Francisco”.
A few years later, he returned to New York and joined forces with several architectural firms that were involved with elegant and timeless projects like the New York Central Building (now The Helmsley Building) and the art deco masterpiece, The Chrysler Building. The Crash of 1929 ended most construction projects in New York, and Chesley returned to the West Coast,. When The Golden Gate Bridge moved from an idea to the drawing board, Chesley took Joseph Strauss’ blueprints and turned them into beautiful paintings that gave everyone a clear understanding of what this massive undertaking would look like. It can be said that Chesley’s renderings eliminated all doubt about moving forward with the project. After the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge, Chesley headed south to Los Angeles with a letter of introduction to the Hollywood studios. With his meticulous eye for detail and realistic painting techniques, he became a special effects matte painter. His artistry provided convincing backgrounds for legendary productions like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, “Citizen Kane”, “The Magnificent Ambersons” and “The Fountainhead”.
Back in his Hollywood apartment, Chesley would once again ponder the celestial. He put brush to canvas and created a series of paintings that would hit the American public like an atomic explosion. Published in Life Magazine, his visions of how planets and galaxies looked before the advent of powerful telescopes, satellites and space probes sowed all the seeds necessary for one of the most revolutionary chapters of our country: The Space Program. Teaming up with rocket experts like Willey Ley and Wernher Von Braun, Chesley collaborated on a series of books, beginning with “The Conquest of Space”, which included his legendary “Saturn As Seen From Titan (1944)” - a painting that did indeed launch a thousand careers in space exploration. His illustrations graced the covers of science fiction magazines of the 1940’s and 50’s, which further fired the imaginations of millions of readers.
Summoned by Hollywood producer George Pal, Chesley lent his talents to classics like “Destination Moon” and “War Of The Worlds”. Television requested Chesley’s help with the series “Men Into Space”. His Bonestellian visions of rocket ships, planets, moons and stars turned up in print, film and broadcast in the 1950’s and ‘60’s. His artistry set the standards of what the journey through space would look like. You can see his influence on filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and many others.
Energized by Chesley’s visions, the American Public hungered for a space program, and they got one. From modified V2 to massive Saturn rockets that got us to the moon, Americans have blazed a trail into outer space like no other country. Space probes that take nine years or more to reach their destination and send back pictures of places like Pluto underscore how far we have come and how relevant space travel still is today. Comparing a Bonestell painting of Pluto and the actual photographs sent back from the New Horizons space probe, one can only marvel at how close Chesley was to the real thing. Indeed the recent discovery of water on Mars has further intensified efforts to send a man to walk on Martian soil, something Chesley painted decades ago. How did he know?
Halley’s Comet returned again in 1986, and Chesley saw it for the second time in his life. As it streaked off back into the cosmos, Chesley Bonestell quietly passed away at his home in Carmel, California, busy at work on a painting that he never finished...
Who was this unheralded and oft-forgotten visionary? How did he know what it would be like to visit other planets…to soar though space…to truly go where no man had gone before? “Chesley Bonestell: A Brush With The Future” will answer those questions. Filled with his mesmerizing art, his designs, and the iconic hallmarks of his legacy, this film will explore the vast influence Chesley Bonestell had on our culture and our destiny. With rare photos and exclusive footage, this film will take us on a fascinating journey through Chesley’s legacy. Noted experts in the fields of art, architecture, motion pictures, and television and indeed, history itself will provide insightful commentary along the way. Also included will be rare, never-before-seen footage of Mr. Bonestell. The film is being produced and directed by award-winning filmmaker Douglass M. Stewart, Jr. and Co-Produced by Ron Miller and Melvin Schuetz, whose award-winning book book "The Art of Chesley Bonestell” has become a collectible item in its own right. There has never been a film made on Mr. Bonestell before. This production will provide a long-needed perspective on the life and works of one of America’s most influential, but unfortunately overlooked and forgotten, visionaries.
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