NEW YORK — IT'S becoming increasingly clear that Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was considerably more than just a Western ``cowboys-and-Indians'' artist. Much like Winslow Homer, he was a very fine painter despite his early beginnings as a ``mere'' narrative illustrator. Although he may not have soared quite as high as Homer, he gave an exceptionally good account of himself. Exactly how good is made abundantly clear in the Metropolitan Museum's current exhibition honoring his life and work, ``Frederic Remington: The Masterworks.''
The first comprehensive retrospective of his work, it was organized by the Saint Louis Art Museum in conjunction with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo. It includes 45 paintings and 20 bronze sculptures, ranging in time from his first acknowledged masterwork, ``A Dash for the Timber'' (1889), to several haunting canvases executed during the last two years of his life.
It's an exciting show, full of action and physical conflict. There's also the breathtaking Western scenery that serves as background for human drama and as a poetic symbol for mankind's yearning for new frontiers. But most persistently, there's social intercourse and the passion of human conflict: uniformed soldiers attacking, waiting to be attacked, or in full retreat; Indians fighting, hunting, or socializing; and, of course, the ever-present cowboy.
But there's also the unexpected - at least for those unfamiliar with Remington's more poetic later works. These are the still, muffled, occasionally introspective canvases painted during the last half-dozen or so years of his life, which, more than any others, validate his claim to artistic immortality.
Chief among them, and quite possibly Remington's masterpiece, is the 1909 ``The Outlier,'' a stark, simple image of a mounted Indian sentinel shrouded in reverie. Except for the authenticity of the figure and locale, it bears little relation to any of Remington's earlier pictures. Close behind in quality are ``The Gossips,'' a muted, dramatically simplified study of two mounted Indians conversing at twilight; ``Apache Scouts Listening'' and ``Night Halt of the Cavalry,'' both eerie moonlit scenes; and ``Evening on a Canadian Lake,'' a stunning exercise in how to simplify forms and capture mood without sacrificing character or narrative detail.
Possibly an even greater surprise to those who perceive Remington exclusively as a cowboys-and-Indians artist are the smallish landscape studies executed in the field to serve as future references or atmospheric and coloristic studies in their own right.
Thanks to his painter friends Childe Hassam and J. Alden Weir, Remington became increasingly fascinated with Impressionism toward the end of his life, and many of these small landscape studies reflect that interest. Seen out of context and without his signature, such simplified landscape images as ``Shoshone'' (1908) and ``Pete's Shanty, Ingleneuk'' (1908) would never be attributed to him. And yet, it's largely because of what he learned doing them that his last and most special canvases - ``The Snow Trail'' and ``With the Eye of the Mind'' - achieve that final touch of coloristic vibrancy that sets them apart from everything else he did.
The exhibition also includes several of Remington's most famous sculptures and a special section devoted to their connoisseurship.
``When Is a Remington Bronze a Copy? A Case Study of the Artist's Sculptures in the Museum's Collection'' includes 12 bronzes, two of which can be compared with original casts of these works. This section should be of special interest to scholars and collectors.
At the Metropolitan Museum through April 16.