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.
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.
The impressionist painter would have three sons. The oldest, Pierre, was a successful stage actor. Jean became the renowned director of Grand Illusion, considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. The youngest, Claude -- "Coco" to his family -- is one whom Jean Renoir's biographer Ronald Bergan referred to as the Zeppo of the family. "He grew up with an immensely famous artist for a father, and was brother to a celebrated actor and world-renowned film director. He himself went into film production, co-directed a film, was an assistant director on La Bête Humaine and owned a number of cinemas. But he remained the unknown Renoir."
Though he was bright and affable, some described Claude as a phony, with poor business sense and willing to authenticate Renoirs without any particular expertise. Family friend Alice Fighiera has put it even more bluntly: "Coco had no talent whatsoever. Coco thought his name would be sufficient to get him on in the world. Coco always wanted what Jean did. When Jean did ceramics, he did. When Jean went into cinema, Coco did the same. He tried everything, and failed everything."
It was to this man that Paul Renoir was born.
Though he never knew his grandfather, he could hardly have escaped the painter's presence. Paul was born in 1925 on Les Collettes, the 100-acre estate of olive trees in the village Cagnes-sur-Mer where the arthritic impressionist would paint through his last painful days. Dinner guests like Albert Camus and Ernest Hemingway came and went as a disinterested Paul played with his pet donkey Billy the Kid, and rolled his grandfather's wheelchair around like a go-cart.
"If he didn't have that name, he'd probably have to work really hard all his life and be more like the rest of us, I guess, and be judged more on just you," says Dean Terry, a distributor of exotic game and mushrooms who started a mail-order business with Paul in the '90s marketing collectable Renoir lithographs. "But he gets access to a lot of people and events that he wouldn't if he didn't have that name."
Paul got his first taste of hardship when he joined the French resistance; he eventually was captured by the Nazis. He escaped by possessing the wisdom to check the door the prisoners passed on the way down to the courtyard for daily exercises. He opened the oft-ignored door and waltzed through the front lobby to freedom. Paul would later refuse the Médaille de la Résistance and the Croix de Guerre because he didn't resist the Nazis for "the glory of it."
With the war over, he soon reverted back to his old ways. He was an actor until the homosexual advances of a director convinced him to switch careers. Then he was co-owner of the Casino-Theatre Antipolis with his father. He owned a jazz club, won sailing trophies and trapshooting awards, and frequently went on European hunting tours. He drove a Bugatti and had lady acquaintances the likes of Brigitte Bardot and Ingrid Bergman.
"This man used to have everything he wants. Ferraris, Bugattis," Marie-Paule says. "How do you feel if you have every day 15 or 20 people for your lunch and dinner, at the best that the area gives you? The best wine, the best this, the best that .You know, they live like that."
A favorite story of Paul's recounts a drive to an impressionist opening in Brussels with the son of Gauguin and grandson of Cézanne. When the customs officer took each of their identifications at the Belgium border, he shook his head and muttered, "Renoir, Cézanne, Gauguin -- that's not possible!" These are the years Paul describes as his happiest. There was a European Renaissance taking place, and he was walking in the forefront with the movement's artists and thinkers.
"Then we are in the '50s and '60s and '70s, and of course Paul had his first family, and then there was me, and that was it," Marie-Paule says.
Yet the decades Marie-Paule attempts to gloss over might very well be the most revealing about the man who would end up in a struggling Houston gallery 50 years later.
When Pierre-Auguste died, the estate was divided among his three sons. Pierre received a house at Essoyes, and Coco got Les Collettes. With no land left to inherit, the bulk of the 1,000 paintings went to Jean, who was loose with his fortune. Jean was known to treat his entire film crew to lunch, and then hand a Renoir painting to the restaurant owner as a tip. The works that weren't traded frivolously went to fund Jean's movies. The few Pierre acquired ended up in the hands of wronged ex-wives. Coco, known as the most spendthrift of the three, used his to buy a sailboat and help his brother Jean's film career.
"You need money, just sell a painting," says Marie-Paule's daughter, Nathalie Schultz, summing up the mind-set.
Marie-Paule agrees. "Money for these people means nothing. Money means nothing. They think it's always going to be there. They keep living the way they do .They don't care."
Depending on who you ask, Coco eventually sold Les Collettes to the city out of financial desperation, spite for his lost childhood or as an act of philanthropy. The amount he received, again depending on the source, came to either a quarter of its value, or the symbolic sum of a dollar, in the hopes that it would become a museum. Regardless, at the age of 32, Paul found himself having to take up residence outside of Cagnes-sur-Mer for the first time.
Unlike the United States, where there is more emphasis among the rich to educate their children and prepare them for the struggles of the real world, the offspring of the European upper class are coddled. Paul had few skills that could support him outside the confines of the country club, except those gained simply by being a Renoir. For a time, Paul owned a doomed business with his father, doing the family trade of ceramics, which was passed down by Pierre-Auguste. The demand for handmade pieces faded with the cheaper and readily available mass-produced ceramics that flooded the market. Paul made do by authenticating Renoirs, pawning a few artworks and closing the odd business deal to augment the small royalties the French government still required to go to artists' families from the sale of their relatives' paintings.
Paul's son Emmanuel, whom many see as the black sheep of a rather dark flock, laughs when asked if his father ever had any money. "No, no," he says. "He's not a businessman."
Renewed hopes would come in the form of a stack of boxes that Coco left rotting in the cellar of Les Collettes. Apparently he never bothered to look inside, because he thought about burning them. "They are probably just scraps my father gathered. If you are at all interested in them, please take them," he told Paul, who was only curious enough to store the boxes for another ten years. When he finally took them out of storage, he would find photographs, ceramics, unpublished screenplays of Jean's and correspondence from Cézanne, Monet and Edouard Manet. This collection of discarded odds and ends would become known as the family archives. Among the boxes, Paul would also find the infamous cachet d'atelier Renoir, a stamp with the raised lettering of Pierre-Auguste's signature that, according to Paul, would be dipped in paint and affixed to the back of some of his grandfather's paintings for authenticity.
Paul would make much of the cachet. "Le cachet d'atelier Renoir alone assures the authenticity of a Renoir original or lithograph; nothing else would do," Paul would claim in the Renoir Society Journal, summarizing his oft-used pitch. "I, and I only, have the authority to apply the family cachet .Only a descendant of Pierre-Auguste Renoir has the knowledge, perfectionist expertise and natural empathy to recognize and retain the exquisite quality true to the spirit of Pierre-Auguste Renoir." He would enrage family members when he took the boast too far. "I acquired from the three Pierre-Auguste Renoir heirs full interest in the Renoir name, giving me sole possession of the droits de représentations et reproductions and the exclusive rights of the Renoir name, signature and expertise."
Authenticating Renoir works would turn out to be Paul's most successful practice, and one he continues doing for small French galleries to this day. He seems to take the work seriously, and researches the family papers before applying the stamp. Museums, however, typically rely on experts who have widely published scholarly papers, and often will do laboratory tests to verify the paintings they acquire. Paul's later attempts to stamp lithographic reproductions of his grandfather's paintings to give them an added -- if you'll excuse the pun -- cachet, led to an investigation by the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The paper questioned the significance of the stamp, stating, "Stamping the front -- or even the back -- of a painting is a practice unknown in the professional art world." The piece quoted a spokesman for Sotheby's auction house as saying, "There are no seals on the back of Renoir paintings. We identify them by expertise or by reference to a catalogue raisonné." Staff members at the MFA, however, recognize the practice as legitimate in some cases, and one of many things they consider when assessing a work.
Stamping reproductions would lead to trouble in the mid-'70s when Paul faced charges of mail fraud from the U.S. attorney's office, according to the San Antonio Express-News. The case concerned brochures offering "original prints" for $200 to $300 apiece, "signed from the seal in the artist's estate." The problem was that the prints were not created by Pierre-Auguste or from plates made in his lifetime, but from photographic reproductions, and the money had to be reimbursed. Paul "has always been honest, that's all I can tell you," Marie-Paule says, claiming her husband never met the man who put together that business.
Emmanuel claims that it was all the work of some low-key publisher in the south of France whom Paul met only once, briefly. "Only, [Paul's] name appeared in literature, and that's what tied him up with this kind of publishing," Emmanuel says. "I'm quite sure Paul never got a profit out of it."
Friends and family are quick to defend Paul's business dealings, fraudulent or otherwise. They paint a picture of a naive man taken advantage of by less-than-scrupulous opportunists. "They're very sweet, caring people," Dean Terry says. "Sometimes that innocence has been taken advantage of. A lot of people feel the Renoir name would benefit [them] a lot."
It was in 1978 that Paul's dealings took his then-wife, Louise, and four sons to North America. He was dining in Alberta, Canada, with the country's minister of agriculture and a client who had bought some drawings. When the host apologized for the poor quality of the cheese served at dinner, Paul chimed, "Oh, we can make cheese."
One problem: Paul did not know how to make cheese. But that didn't stop him from selling some small Renoir originals to raise the $250,000 to $400,000 he needed to invest in a factory. A second problem: In North America, governments have tighter controls over cheese production and pasteurization. "In France we never get sick from cheese because we know when it's good or not," Marie-Paule explains. "But when you sell in Canada or in America, you have to be sure the people know what's going on."
After many batches of bad Brie, Paul finally flew in an expert from France to help. In the end, Emmanuel says, they got their act together. "When we close down, we were making extremely good cheese, and people 20 years later remember." Despite making quality cheese and distributing it in major supermarkets, the company couldn't stay afloat. Emmanuel blames the failure, somewhat cryptically, on "finance."
Things weren't going so well on the home front, either. Paul's marriage was strained after the loss of a son, Nicolas, to leukemia. In 1982 the French Consulate of Houston invited Paul to judge a student art competition. At one of their functions, he met Marie-Paule Farinola, the divorced wife of Adriano Farinola, who then owned Pino's restaurant. "After a week, he wanted to stay," Marie-Paule says. "I didn't say nothing. After a couple of days, I said I have an extra room, if he wants to stay and visit more." In three weeks, they decided they were in love, and Paul went back to break the news to his family. "What we did was [kiss] for three weeks," Marie-Paule says. "When he came back, it was a different story. He must have been tired from his trip, but boy, he was very excited to see me at the airport."
The family archives arrived shortly thereafter. The files took up so much space that it became difficult to move around the house. At the time, Marie-Paule's daughter, Nathalie, had never even heard the name Renoir, and wasn't impressed. When Paul's son Emmanuel showed up with his wife and son, it was too much. "I thought he was an invader in my home," says Nathalie, who is 37 but sounds 17. Marie-Paule remembers fondly one family dinner when Nathalie broke down and told Emmanuel to move out.
It was Emmanuel who would conceive the Renoirs' next venture: Renoir Sparkling Water. The bottles featured Renoir paintings and the slogan "Thirst Impressions" on the label. One advertisement read: "Renoir is marvelous. No, not the artist or the cinéaste who directed The River or Boudu sauvé des eaux. It is a delicious water, without sugar, salt or calories." The concept, though silly, should be remembered in its proper context. In the early '80s bottled water was still a national joke. The idea that one could make money selling something that people could get from their taps was nothing short of visionary. Possibly even genius.
The way Nathalie remembers it, the venture began when Paul was flown out to make an appearance for an existing company, which had found itself in debt. Some sort of deal was struck giving Emmanuel control as the company's CEO. Before Emmanuel could take over, however, Paul had to bail the company out. The only remaining Renoir originals of any note appeared to be a plaster fireplace medallion depicting Coco, a statue of the Venus Victrix and a red pencil sketch of the sculpture. Since Paul's aging mother, Maria-Paulette (who went by Popo), and his son Pierre were the only Renoirs with good credit, a holding company was formed that put the assets in her and Pierre's name. That ownership eventually would put Popo in the middle of a family tug-of-war. Not willing to part with the last scraps of his grandfather's estate, Paul used the Venus Victrix drawing as collateral to obtain loans from Joe Russo, who would be convicted of bank fraud ten years later (see "The Trial of Joe Russo," by Alison Cook, December 1, 1994). Marie-Paule eventually put up her own house to obtain another loan from Russo, so that the company could get its water shipped to stores.
"It didn't succeed, which was sad because the Renoir water was the first to come out with any essence flavor at all .And several years later, then Perrier came out with flavors. There could have been a very profitable company," Nathalie says. Nathalie knew things weren't going well when she visited Emmanuel's apartment and they were using crates for furniture. "They're not businessmen."
Again, Emmanuel insists the company did well, selling a lot of product with distribution in Safeway stores, until problems with "finance" killed it, this time because of the ailing Houston economy.
What happened next is a bit difficult to ascertain. The mere mention of the water business causes any member of the Renoir family to visibly wince in pain. Marie-Paule will say only that it is a "sensitive issue" with the family. And for good reason. Popo, who died in 1987, became a pawn in the family's seemingly never- ending maneuvers to land ownership of the water company. The family claims Emmanuel tricked Popo into signing over ownership of the company. Paul then tried to wrest back control by having Popo sign over power of attorney. Emmanuel claims Paul used the statue to obtain another loan to sue him in a lengthy court battle that hinged on Popo's competency.
"We had about ten lawyers who for long period of time argued over nothing," Emmanuel says. "By the time we reached an agreement, there was no more company." Court documents show that Paul was indeed guardian of Popo and her estate, and that the Venus Victrix statue was used as collateral for a loan from Russo. Oddly, Nathalie remembers seeing the statue on display in the lobby of one of Russo's banks during this time.
In the end, the bank reclaimed the drawing, and the Venus Victrix ended up in the hands of Russo. When Russo's Charter National Bank finally foreclosed on Marie-Paule's house, she and Paul told the bank they could "throw them out." Which eventually the bank did. When the ordeal was over, Emmanuel fled to Canada to try his hand at starting a line of Renoir-brand cafes, jewelry and biscuits.
The only Renoir work of note left was a plate-sized medallion of a young Coco's head in profile. For some time, Paul had been trying to squeeze money out of it by casting the medallion and selling reproductions for around $5,000 apiece. When Emmanuel left, the family claims, he took one of the cast medallions with him and made a second-generation mold of it. They say he even improved upon Pierre-Auguste's work by rounding the flattened top, which had been shaved to make it fit beneath the fireplace mantel. Emmanuel claims to be selling an entirely different medallion. However, the photo of the piece looks similar to Paul's, except for a rounded top and slightly smaller dimensions. (Each generation mold produces slightly smaller sculptures because the metal shrinks during cooling.) Second-generation or no, Emmanuel had the marketing savvy to sell nearly all of the 1,000 he produced through the Internet and other means, while Paul sold only 30 or so of the 150 he produced.
When, in an odd turn of events, nine of Paul's remaining medallions were stolen in an armed robbery in September 1999, he would fare no better when attempting to make an insurance claim. The insurance company's appraiser tracked down Emmanuel to help ascertain their value. Nathalie went to hear the appraiser's offer and was informed that Emmanuel was willing to replace the so-called $5,000 medallions with special "limited edition" ones for a modest $500 apiece. Paul could accept his son's offer or take $500 cash per medallion.
Emmanuel seems genuinely surprised by this. "What stolen? No I passed [a medallion] on to an associate on the project, and he made a deal and [the appraiser] bought one of my new edition. He wanted to see if it was the same or not and I don't know if he was happy with the result because I never heard from him again."
The medallions were never recovered.
With no originals left to pawn, the archives have become the last vestige of the Renoir estate. With the help of his wife and her daughter, Nathalie, Paul has been meticulously cataloguing each of Renoir's works, with the hopes of making a complete and current catalog of all of Renoir's existing pieces. Unlike the museums devoted to many of Renoir's contemporaries, Les Collettes has become embroiled in political red tape and infighting among city officials, and little has ever been done with it.
Paul had hoped to build a smaller version of the home and garden in Houston. "We wanted to have like a museum and put all the archives in there," Marie-Paule says. "That was Paul's dream." They approached museums and universities. Everyone seemed interested, she says, but no one wanted to put up the money. "In business, I'm not good," Marie-Paule admits. But they still cling to their last remaining hope: "You can do anything with this name. If I had $10 million, I'd do it myself, but I don't. I have to ask other people to help." Now, they'd be happy simply to find a buyer.
"I wish we could have done it like the Picassos did," Marie-Paule sighs. "The Picassos, they went in businesses. They used the name and sold the name and whatever. Paloma Picasso is a granddaughter of Picasso. She's a businesswoman. She makes purses with Picasso and jewelry and all these things. You need money to do that, darling."
The Renoirs arrive at Cafe Montrose, where a Renoir limited-edition lithograph hangs on the wall. They have forgotten to put one of Paul's cards on the frame. "No matter," Marie-Paule says, trying to shrug it off. They get a special seat arranged in the back, and Paul is actually talkative tonight. It appears there are some stories Marie-Paule hasn't heard after all. At one point, she has a lively conversation with the owner, a fellow Belgian, in their native tongue.
In France, Paul is still a celebrity. He's still ushered into museums where lines wrap around the block. It's not easy, Paul says, because everyone expects more from him because he's a Renoir. His friend Terry had made a similar comment over the phone: "How do you ever get away from that? How do you ever get accepted on your own?"
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"You can go to any famous family, they all have problems," Marie-Paule says. But, she adds, that doesn't necessarily mean they're unhappy. She motions to Paul. "He's happy. He's a healthy man. There's nothing more he can offer himself or me either, so he's happy with everybody else, and he lives on that cloud. As long as he has his books around him and all that. We don't go dancing. We don't go out and socialize. I don't need it. I don't."
For her own part, she's happy too, but could be better. "We still own a fortune with [Pierre-Auguste's] papers."
So does Paul ever yearn to go back to Europe? He shakes his head. He's happy right here. "This is where she is," he says, smiling gleefully as he nudges his wife. It's virtually the only bit of English he's spoken.
When finished, Paul needs some help standing. The wear of age and gravity is evident, but there is still an odd levity to his step, as if the floor were cumulous. This dinner's on the house, yet another benefit of being a Renoir. And there's good news about those archives. They might have found a buyer. If true, then his name will indeed be the only thing of his grandfather's Paul Renoir has left.