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Renoir artfully trades on the family name

''Believe it or not," Alexandre Renoir confesses as he's being shuttled to a TV interview, ''one of the classes I repeatedly failed in high school was art."

He smiles at the irony. After all, he is one of the Renoirs. His great-grandfather, Pierre-Auguste, created the Impressionist masterpieces that bring millions on the auction market and hang in most major museums. Alexandre, who at 31 was born more than a half century after the master's death, moved to Canada as a small boy. Today, he splits his time between Edmonton and a rented place in La Jolla, Calif.

''It's hard to stay out of the art business with a name like Renoir," he says.

And a business it is. Trading on the family name, Alexandre Renoir is on an American tour, an excursion that has brought him to a Newbury Street gallery for a two-week show that features his paintings alongside work by Cezanne and other peers of his great-grandfather.

The contemporary Renoir paints sunsets, flowers, and sand dunes in the style of the Impressionists. He also has a line of lithographs with characters plucked from his great-grandfather's famous 1881 oil painting, ''Luncheon of the Boating Party," which features a lush depiction of Pierre-Auguste Renoir's wife, Aline.

Alexandre Renoir re-creates them with slight variations. In one of his works, for example, Aline is shown holding her great-grandson's dog. Renoir is not the first to cash in on a relative's fame. One of Pablo Picasso's daughters developed a perfume referencing the artist's work; the family also licensed his name to car maker Citroen.

The Renoir road show operates under a tight schedule. The artist swoops into a town and hosts a brief gallery show. In each city, his works, which are priced from $2,000 to $10,000, hang next to higher-priced pieces by, among others, Degas, Cezanne, and the original Renoir. This year, Alexandre Renoir has been to five states and eight cities, including Palm Beach, Fla., Houston, Cincinnati, and Kalamazoo, Mich. Next month, he'll hit Virginia and California.

He says his famous last name is both a help and a hindrance. But by the looks of the crowd nibbling on wine and cheese Friday night at Lanoue Fine Art on Newbury Street, it's hard to find the negative impact. Regan Communications had a pair of staffers taking Renoir to interviews at Fox, New England Cable News, and CN8 to promote the show, which concludes Friday.

Susan Lanoue, the gallery owner, says she was delighted to have a Renoir in the house.

''It's apparent that Alexandre has the innate skills of a career artist," she says.

Others are not so enthusiastic.

''He's not without talent, but it's really for making fairly ordinary, pleasing stuff," said Jonathan Ribner, an art history professor at Boston University. ''It's the sort of stuff you'd see on the wall of a motel but it's probably more expensive than that. What you're paying for with this type of art is his name."

''He's an enthused amateur," adds Paul Tucker, the University of Massachusetts at Boston professor who curated the record-breaking ''Monet in the '90s" show at the Museum of Fine Arts.

They disagree on where Renoir fits among other popularizers. Ribner said Renoir was a slight cut above painter Leroy Neiman, known for his splashy images of sports stars, and Thomas Kinkade, the critically savaged ''Painter of Light."

Tucker didn't give Renoir that much credit.

''In fact, Neiman is a very versatile artist," says Tucker. ''And Thomas Kinkade is one of the great marketers we've seen. I would actually say this young man is a step below both of them."

Renoir tried to make a living without a brush. Not interested in going to college, he waited tables, promoted club shows in Canada, and tried his hand at carpentry. It was during a visit to California to see his older brother, Jean-Emmanuel, that he got hooked on art.

Joining the family business
Actually, Jean-Emmanuel placed charcoals and paper in front of his younger brother. He told him to dash off some drawings. Then Jean-Emmanuel took those to a local art dealer and suddenly, another Renoir was in the art business.

Over the years, his older brother has battled with family members over business ventures involving the Renoir name. Jean-Emmanuel launched a brand of Renoir bottled water, and tried to create a line of clothing inspired by his great-grandfather. Earlier this month, an Arizona court ruled that Jean-Emmanuel broke the law by creating and selling copies of Renoir's sculptures. The opposing attorney called the plan the ''biggest art fraud in history."

''I'm still shaking my head," says Alexandre, who insists that his brother's case has been unfairly reported. '' 'Billion dollar art fraud?' You've got to be kidding."

For many of those milling through Lanoue Fine Art during Renoir's visit, the family name is precisely the point.

Michael and Dorothy Follese, a Minneapolis couple visiting for their 20th wedding anniversary, purchase a ''Boating Party" takeoff for just under $3,000. They believe that Alexandre's skills are no coincidence.

''This is something that's passed down through generations," says Dorothy Follese. ''This is a piece of a legend in the form of Alex."

Debra Johnson, a receptionist's assistant at Peabody Office Furniture, asks a gallery worker to be introduced. Then, in a back alcove of the gallery, she sits on a couch, tucked away from the other partygoers listening as a real Renoir regales her with details of the famous ''Boating Party" painting.

''None of them sat together," he tells her of the multiple figures in the work.

''So the painting was done . . ." she asks.

''Bit by bit," he follows.

Later, Renoir mingles with other collectors and art lovers. Johnson, meanwhile, considers whether to open her pocketbook.

''I haven't been a collector in the past but I thought I'd start collecting with his stuff," she explains. ''Having the bloodline as part of the collection is an added attraction."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com

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