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).
Nineteenth century artists like Alfred Bierstadt and Thomas Moran produced huge canvases designed to inspire stay-at-home Americans with the scenic wonders of the West. Just so, Chesley Bonestell invited viewers to imagine what it would be like to stand on the surface of another world. If his predecessors had taken artistic license to emphasize the grandeur of the western landscape, Bonestell portrayed a dramatically lit moonscape, with sharp peaks, jagged canyons and precipitous crater walls. .
The Soviets orbited Sputnik I on October 4, 1957, a little more than six months after the unveiling of Lunar Landscape. The art of Chesley Bonestell had inspired the dreams of the scientists and engineers who achieved the goal of travel beyond the atmosphere. Ironically, the photographs returned by the first spacecraft to visit the Moon revealed a very different, gentler and far less dramatic world than the artist had envisioned. Millions of years worth of particles bombarding the airless Moon from space had produced a much tamer and more rounded lunarscape than Bonestell imagined. Recognizing that the mural could no longer be regarded as an accurate depiction of the Moon, Boston Museum of Science officials carefully removed it from the wall in 1970, and presented to the National Air and Space Museum six years later.
“I tried to make it as dramatic as I could,” the artist explained, while admitting that the Moon looked “nothing like” his masterpiece. He continued to insist, however, that a mural with the soft, rolling hills of the real Moon “wouldn’t have looked very interesting.” As artist Ron Miller suggests, Chesley Bonestell gave us the Moon “as it should have been,” the Moon that inspired our romantic desire to stand on a spot where the blue-green earth floats above the rugged lunar highlands. “Lunar Landscape” remains today, both a reminder of an era when human beings could only dream of space travel, and a casualty of a dream realized.
The painting arrived at the National Air and Space Museum in 1976, the year in which the new building on the Mall opened. Rolled like a carpet, it immediately went into deep storage. Partially unrolled in the early 1980s, staff members decided that the mural required conservation and sent it back into storage. That’s where things stood until July 2005. Museum curatorial staffers Margaret Weitekamp and Jennifer Levasseur were planning a special art exhibition, “Out of This World,” to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the space age. Bonestell’s Lunar Landscape would have a place of honor in the new gallery. The mural was transported from the Museum’s Garber Facility in Suitland, Md., next door to the Smithsonian’s state-of-the-art conservation facility, where Jia Sun Tsang, the Smithsonian’s senior painting conservator, and her staff unrolled it and conducted an in-depth conservation analysis, complete with an estimate of the cost to restore the painting and prepare it for display.
Things were looking up for the hard luck mural, but only temporarily. When the Museum’s development officers were unable to raise the funds required to move forward with the project, “Out of This World,” was removed from the planning schedule, and with it the hope of finally displaying Lunar Landscape. The work that went into planning the new exhibition was not lost, however. Margaret and Jennifer, working with Web & New Media Division intern Chuck Borowicz and other web staff, have created a virtual exhibition that just went online, complete with additional information on Lunar Landscape and the conservation effort. Check it out:
Today Chesley Bonestell’s masterpiece is back in storage. This time, however, we know that it is in fairly good condition, and can be restored for display. The dream of one day exhibiting the mural that embodies the excitement of the early space age is alive and well and living in my office.
Tom D. Crouch is a senior curator in the Aeronautics Division at the National Air and Space Museum.