What's in a Name?

Paul Renoir once had it all. But after years of botched business deals, he has virtually nothing left of his inheritance save the one thing he can't lose: His lineage to the famous painter.

 My name is Paul Renoir. I have always been Paul Renoir. When I was captured by the Nazis and tortured for my part in the Resistance at age 19, they couldn't take my name from me. It was the name given to me by my parents. To my knowledge, I am the only Paul Renoir alive. -- From "Will the Real Paul Renoir Stand Up?: Determining the Genuine from the Fraud," in the Renoir Society Journal

At first glance, the preview of "Monet, Renoir and the Impressionist Landscape" has everything you could possibly want from a major museum opening. Perky and attractive PR people hand out name tags and press packets as they schedule face time with the folks responsible for this display. Except for the geriatrics from the Houston Chronicle, the journalists seem to have taken great care to strike the proper balance in their outfits: formal to recognize the solemnity of the occasion, yet hip enough to remind everyone that they're still journalists, dammit, covering the art scene. One lady somehow manages to look classy in a pair of leather pants.

As the guided tour starts its trek through the exhibit of a billion dollars'-plus worth of artwork, two reporters hang back to consider the different tacks taken by Cézanne and Renoir when painting the same rocky crags at L'Estaque. A young woman from one of the student papers looks absolutely giddy, like she's just happy to have sneaked in here. There's something catching about her excitement. How can one not feel humbled standing in front of the work of someone so prominent that people refer to him by only his last name? When the members of the media are finally seated for the catered meal, the table debates whether the term "Latin American art" does justice to the diversity of the region. Yes, this opening would seem to have everything. Everything, that is, except Paul Renoir, the grandson of the very man to whom this exhibit pays tribute. There's a good reason why he's not here: Paul Renoir was not invited.

Paul Renoir is now affiliated with the Arjang Gallery, whose owner's best-known work is a bust of Ronald Reagan.
Deron Neblett
Paul Renoir is now affiliated with the Arjang Gallery, whose owner's best-known work is a bust of Ronald Reagan.

Is he "back in town?" museum director Peter C. Marzio asks after the Houston Press mentions the name. He vaguely recalls something about a statue Paul tried to sell him a few years back. Mary Morton, the curator of this exhibit, doesn't even seem to have heard of him. "Who's Renoir's grandson? No, I don't know anything about him."

Yet the self-described sole heir to the official family seal, and progeny of the man whose paintings adorn the museum walls, lives only a mile from the Museum of Fine Arts, near the Arjang Gallery, where he and his wife share wall space with the owner, Ardeshir Arjang. It is an old building, with uneven floors and no heat. The place was closed for the past year and a half because of the Dunlavy bridge construction. They seem desperate to get the word out that they're open for business, which is how the Press learned about Renoir's presence. Arjang apologizes for not having anything to offer to drink as we are seated in the back room.

"We keep a very low profile," explains Marie-Paule, Paul's current wife and translator, doing a two-fingered pope-wave with her cigarette as Paul, now 75, sits dutifully by. One doesn't know if their name-dropping is out of vanity or simply the world they once inhabited, or both. It's difficult to reconcile the offspring of artistic royalty sharing gallery space with Arjang, a man whose most notable work is the Reagan bust on view at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. "Most of museums, they don't like heirs of famous painters. I don't know if you know that, but they always put their nose up," says Marie-Paule.

You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Paul is known as a gregarious storyteller, touted as a "world-recognized authority on impressionist art." But to ask him a question now is pointless. Paul can barely mumble a syllable before his wife starts reciting the tale she's heard at a thousand soirees and dinner parties, pausing only occasionally to have him clarify some minor detail. He thinks more and more in French as the years go on, his wife explains, and his memory's not as good as it used to be. If they are bothered by any perceived snub by the MFA, they don't show it. Right now, the Renoirs are much more concerned about their name.

Marie-Paule was recently driving when she spotted a billboard announcing the latest building project of Randall Davis, the Renoir Lofts at Shepherd Drive and West Dallas. Paul wasn't notified. "Of course, the Renoir name is public domain, but morally, he should have tried to contact the heirs, but these people don't think….Randall Davis does not have the right to do that," she says. All her well-bred grace is gone now. "Like down here on Richmond, it is a Picasso gay bar. You cannot just use Picasso's name on anything. It's his name!"

To the descendant of a Renoir, your name is everything.

The Renoir name has its own muddled history. The first recorded instance is attributed to a foundling abandoned in Limoges around 1773. The child was baptized François and was assumed to have been adopted for cheap labor by a local clog-maker named Renouard. When François was finally married, the theory goes, the registrar misheard the name. Being illiterate, François never caught the misspelling. It would be François's grandson, Pierre-Auguste, who would reach such prominence that even members of his own family would refer to him only by the registrar's phonetic typo: Renoir.

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