Creative Space: The Evolution of Astronomical Art
Long before the Earth was known to be round or scientists had discovered the solar system, humanity nurtured an innate fascination with space. Well-documented on cave walls, in biblical writings, and in numerous historical texts are studies of the universe from Earth’s earliest civilizations. While some believed the sun and moon were gods, others simply took comfort in the patterns among the stars (constellations) and in a magical power beyond their understanding.
For centuries, philosophers have theorized about the big, brooding mystery of the unknown, but only the unlikely pairing of scientists and artists was able to truly bring it alive. With the rise of astronomy came a style of art that educated the masses and encouraged people to take a deeper look at the cosmos.
Follow along as we blast off in time, and explore some of the most important moments in the history of space art.
GALILEO, MAGNIFICO (1609)
Our story begins a long time ago, in a land far, far away…
No, but seriously. Have you ever really contemplated the massive size of our universe? Infinitely expanding space is a puzzling concept to grasp. Until the 17th century, what lurked above the sky was nothing more than speculation, and traveling into space was unfathomable.
That all began to change in 1609, when Galileo became the first scientist to observe space with a telescope. Thanks to this new toy, he was able to clearly see (and therefore sketch) the Moon, as well as other planets in our solar system—a breakthrough that shed new light on the possibilities of space exploration.
THE FIRST SPACE ART (18th to early 19th century)
Though the field of astronomy advanced drastically after Galileo’s discovery, space remained an elusive mystery for most people. And though space had already been depicted in various art forms for years, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that artists were able to create realistic depictions rooted in scientific fact, finally allowing them to communicate to the average person that space was more than just a vast, eerie fantasy.
Drawn by Emile-Antoine Bayard and Alphonse de Neuville, the illustrations for Jules Verne's 1865 sci-fi novel From the Earth to the Moon mark the true genesis of the space art genre. Though these renderings lack the hyper-realistic imagery of modern astronomical art, they were the first to depict space travel on a calculated, scientific basis. To do so, Verne enlisted the help of selenographers (astronomers who study the moon’s surface) to create lunar maps for his reference—setting a precedent for attention to detail that would become a hallmark of space art for generations to come.
And while he wasn’t technically the first, it’s arguable that Lucien Rudaux (born 1874) was the godfather of modern space art. At the age of 18, Rudaux joined the French Astronomical Society—a formative experience that opened the door to a lifelong fascination with the heavens. He went on to produce hundreds of detailed artworks depicting the moon’s surface, solar eclipses, and planets (many of them likely seen from the private observatory he built in 1894). Rudaux also wrote many books and magazine articles, all accompanied by his illustrations. His drawings were so scientifically accurate that they’re still reprinted and referenced around the world today.
SPACE ART GETS CINEMATIC…THEN BREAKS THE FOURTH WALL (1940s)
The next major figure in space art was Chesley Bonestell, an American painter who introduced a filmmaker’s sensibility to the genre. After beginning a career in architecture and later, film special effects, Bonestell discovered he could use his specialized knowledge to create highly-detailed, and accurate, astronomical art.
“I realized I could apply camera angles as used in the motion picture studio to illustrate 'travel' from satellite to satellite,” he wrote. “Showing Saturn exactly as it would look, and at the same time I could add interest by showing the inner satellites or outer ones on the far side of Saturn, as well as the planet itself in different phases."
Bonestell’s first published works appeared in a 1944 issue of Life, depicting a series of scenes on Saturn’s moons. These included a painting of Saturn seen from Titan, arguably his most famous painting to date.
The exposure from Bonestell’s work in Life (which had a readership of more than three million) helped generate greater public intrigue in the cosmos, prompting Bonestell’s next big project: a series of artworks published in Collier’s Magazine that fantasized about the future of space travel. His paintings made space exploration seem not just possible, but downright feasible—ultimately spurring on the U.S. government’s investment in space exploration.
Before his death in 1986, Bonestell received an honor befitting of his life’s work: an asteroid named after him.
ARTISTS IN SPACE (1965)
To represent space as accurately as possible, artists have often sought help from a variety of scientists, astronomers, and other specialists. Historically, there were limitations to these methods, mainly because the artist was still taxed with depicting scenery that had yet to be experienced firsthand. But even today, space travel is a luxury most people will never get to enjoy. And of the hundreds of people to ever make the journey, only a handful have been artists.
In 1965, Russian astronaut Alexei Leonov became the first human to walk in space. Leonov, who studied art while in school to be a pilot, took paper and colored pencils along for the journey, and used them to create the first ever eyewitness sketches of the Earth from outer space.
But Leonov isn’t the only space explorer-turned-artist. In 1969, American astronaut Alan Bean was selected as the module pilot for Apollo 12 (the second manned lunar landing), and became the fourth person to walk on the moon. Bean traveled to space for the second and final time in 1973, though he continued to work for NASA until 1981, when he retired to pursue art full-time. Bean’s paintings, which aim to highlight the beauty and depth of our lunar landscape, possess unique qualities—namely the use of real moon dust, as well as heat particles from his own Apollo spacesuit.
“I wanted to paint the Moon in a variety of beautiful colors in the same way Monet painted the gray granite Rouen Cathedral and the yellow-brown Grainstacks,” Bean wrote on his website, “In other words, to be true to myself and what my eyes had seen, I had to replace my Astronaut, Engineer and Scientist Heart with the Heart of an Artist.”
That’s not to say Bean’s art wasn’t precise. In fact, Bean went to great lengths in order to accurately portray outer space, from intensely studying NASA’s official moon photos, to reconstructing space scenes using various lunar modules, and even creating sculptural replicas to reference in his paintings.
But his work also represents an important shift in space art. Though technicality and precision were still important, artists were beginning to experiment with more abstract concepts about the universe.
INFINITELY EXPANDING SPACE ART (1990s-now)
In recent years, space art has evolved from its educational origins to a vehicle for creative experimentation. Artists have begun to stray from strictly scientific depictions, instead opting for art that reflects their own feelings about the cosmos.
With the help of his astronaut wife, Cady, glass artist Josh Simpson captures the universe, planets, and other interstellar phenomena in a variety of glass objects. For Simpson, there is a direct parallel between the intricacy of glassblowing and the complexity of the universe. “I can become mesmerized by color, form, contrast, iridescence, tessellating patterns and complexity,” Simpson says.
And it’s not just visual artists who tackle the universe in their work. Grammy Award-winning musician Mikael Jorgenson and art historian James Merle Thomas make up the musical duo Quindar—named after the signal tones used in interstellar communication. Their albums incorporate recordings from NASA archives to create a unique, atmospheric musical experience.
“Quindar evolved organically out of our shared enthusiasm for histories of art, technology and music,” said Thomas in an interview with Space.com.
“This larger context is the backdrop for what we've been curious about exploring,” added Jorgensen. “In the moments between endless experiments and tasks [while in space], is there time to deeply ponder how insane it is to be so unimaginably far away from our planet before a radio crackles and asks for a status report?”
Jorgensen and Thomas begin their process by sampling sounds from old space audio and film clips. Then, with the help of cutting edge production software and synthesizers, they mix in various musical elements like keyboards, guitars, and electronic beats. Whether it’s a disco-funk jam like “Honeysuckle This is Houston,” or an electro-ambient mix like “Arabella & Anita,” each song offers a unique narrative about space travel. Quindar’s music—which, when performed live, is often accompanied by visual projections—invites the listener to ponder what being in space might sound and feel like.
For the past two-and-a-half centuries, space artists have kept pace with scientific discovery, using the cosmos to educate, experiment, and explore. But while astronomers have made great strides since the invention of the telescope so many years ago, they’ve still only scratched the surface of our vast universe.
In other words, the sky isn’t the limit—it’s merely the beginning.
Here are some other notable space artists to check out.
Space art illustrator and co-author of more than 50 astronomy books.
Astronomical artist who works in acrylics, watercolors, and digital illustration.
Artist who specializes in illustrating exoplanets (planets that orbit stars outside our solar system).
Artist who was invited to attend the Apollo 11 space launch in 1969, resulting in a series of pop art lithographs named Stoned Moon.