For more than a decade it has been my privilege, among my other duties, to serve as curator of the National Air and Space Museum art collection. It comes as a surprise to many folks to realize that the Museum has an art collection. In fact, it includes over 4,700 works by artists with names like Daumier, Goya, Rauschenberg, Rockwell and Wyeth, and is perhaps the finest and best-rounded collection of aerospace-themed art held by any of the world’s museums. People who are aware that I manage the Museum’s art treasures occasionally ask if I have a favorite work in the collection, I do.
Chesley Bonestell’s mural, Lunar Landscape, was unveiled at the Boston Science Museum’s Hayden Planetarium on March 28, 1957. “No spaceship reservations are needed for a startlingly realistic visit to the Moon” announced a museum press release. Measuring forty feet long by ten feet tall, the dramatic panorama of the lunar surface was the masterwork of an artist who had done more than his fair share to set the stage for the coming of the Space Age.
Born in 1888, Chesley Bonestell grew up on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, and survived the 1906 earthquake to emerge as a leading American architectural designer. Having left his artistic fingerprints on some of the best known structures of the era, including the façade of the Chrysler Building, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the Golden Gate Bridge, he moved on to Hollywood, where his matte paintings provided the stunning backgrounds for such films as, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), and The Magnificent Ambersons. (1942).
Always fascinated by astronomy, Bonestell began combining the best available science with his own artistry to produce paintings of the surface of other worlds. Life magazine published a spread of the artist’s extraterrestrial scenes in its issue of May 29, 1944. The editors of Mechanix Illustrated introduced their readers to Bonestell’s notion of a “Moon Rocket” in September 1945. In 1949, he collaborated with writer Willy Ley to produce the beautifully illustrated book, Conquest of Space. The next year, Bonestell teamed with producer George Pal and science fiction writer Robert Heinlein to create a classic space flight film, Destination Moon (1950). The artist contributed illustrations to a series of eight Colliers magazine articles on space flight that began to appear in the spring of 1952, and to the books describing flights to the Moon and Mars that spun out of the magazine series. A generation of youngsters, myself among them, nursed dreams of interplanetary travel inspired by Chesley Bonestell’s dramatic visions of other worlds.
Bonestell was at the peak of his powers in 1956, when the Boston Museum of Science commissioned Lunar Landscape, a work on canvas that would take up an entire wall near the planetarium. As in the case of all of his paintings, the artist planned the mural in meticulous detail. He positioned the viewer on a spot 1300 feet up the south wall of an imaginary lunar crater (“similar to Albateguius, but smaller”), located seven degrees from the Moon’s North Pole and five degrees to the left of the center of the lunar disc. He went so far as to specify that it was 3 o’clock, Boston time, on a late June afternoon, and calculated the position of the planets and stars accordingly (Jupiter over the central peaks, Antares below and to the right of the Earth).