In England his luck improved dramatically. Immediately and serendipitously, he met a series of potential patrons—gallery directors and critics—nearly all of whom were enthralled with both the paintings and the American Woodsman himself. By 1827 he was an artistic celebrity. The engraving of the plates for the mighty "double elephant folio" of his The Birds of America had commenced. Thereafter, the course of Audubon's life was generally upward until he died in 1851, internationally famous and moderately affluent. It is often overlooked that after he got his first breaks he worked like a Trojan to maintain his success. The production of the double elephant folio—so-called because the artist insisted, against professional advice, on huge 29½" X 39½" plates so that he could portray all birds, from warblers to cranes, life-size—was perhaps the most complicated and expensive publishing project of the mid-19th century. Audubon, a ne'er-do-well too fuzzy-headed to keep a general store in backwoods Kentucky, supervised this sophisticated venture from beginning to end.
The volumes required 11 years to complete. Eventually 175 to 200 full sets of the folio were issued, each containing 435 hand-colored prints. Each set sold for $1,000. (In 1984 a double elephant folio was sold at auction for $1.4 million.)
While the work was in progress, Audubon made repeated trips back to America to draw more birds for the folio, which was issued in segments of five plates at a time. Simultaneously he was writing a five-volume Ornithological Biography, which served as text-commentary to the paintings.
Also, wherever he went in Europe, Audubon was energetically selling himself as the American Woodsman in order to line up subscribers for The Birds of America. He finally completed his overseas efforts in 1838 and returned permanently to the United States, where he began making arrangements for publishing a smaller octavo (about 7" x 10½") edition of The Birds of America. Thereafter he set about to do for mammals what he had done for birds. This work, undertaken in collaboration with his longtime admirer, Lutheran minister and naturalist John Bachman, was entitled The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. It was as grandly conceived as The Birds of America but inferior in execution. This happened in part because Audubon's artistic prowess was waning even as the obligations of celebrityhood grew.
Audubon, H.D. Thoreau and Mark Twain—regarded not only in the U.S. but throughout the world as the most important and distinctively American men of imagination—are also in the broadest sense nature artists. This is not an accident of idiosyncratic talent. Rather, these are the three men of arts and letters who dealt most boldly with the man-nature theme, which happens to be our nearest equivalent to a commonly felt national legend.
There still remains the historical and folk conviction that we started out from a clearing in the wilderness and that, ever since, our most important undertakings have involved exploring, exploiting and enjoying this circumstance. Though we are now an urbanized, industrialized people, we have a subliminal sense that we all are also American Woodsmen. We feel that as a country, and individually, we are wilder and more natural than others; that our luckiest, most beautiful, most valuable and most dangerous possession is Nature. Nature is the ultimate hero of all important American romances and romancers.
Being what he was, Audubon seems to have known all this in his bones. Take, for example, the mocking-birds he painted in the summer of 1825 in Louisiana. A terrified but courageous pair of the birds is shown valiantly defending their nest in the jasmine vines against a monstrous rattlesnake, mouth gaping, with terrible fangs exposed, and coiled to strike. From a technical standpoint there may be better bird paintings, but few are more animated or have more imaginative impact. It is much more than a natural history record. There is a heraldic quality to it that evokes the mystery, passion, beauty and bestiality of the wild.
Shortly after arriving in England, Audubon was introduced to W. Home Lizars, then regarded as perhaps the finest of all engravers and a great figure within the British art establishment. Diffidently, Audubon began to show his paintings. When they came to the mockingbirds and snake, Lizars jumped from his chair and exclaimed, "My God, I never saw anything like that before." Then he added, "Mr. Audubon, the people here don't know who you are at all, but depend on it, they shall know."
Later, when the painting was issued in the double elephant folio, a storm of criticism was raised by naturalists who pointed out that real rattlesnakes seldom hunted in trees. The controversy became even greater when Audubon, in his commentary, dramatically described a rattlesnake swiftly pursuing a gray squirrel by swarming up tree trunks and swinging from limb to limb in dreadful pursuit of its quarry.
Biographers and admirers have excused this apparent bit of nature fakery on the grounds that Audubon was obviously describing a blacksnake and that his calling it a rattler was only due to a slip of the pen. Maybe so, but more likely not. It is definitely a rattlesnake in the painting. More to the point, it is the rattlesnake—first known as the Great American Creeple—that gets to the heart of our nation's reptilian matters. Throw in some good, brave mockingbirds and a touch of jasmine, and you have, as Lizars immediately realized, an immensely potent and symbolic portrait of the Romance of Nature.