Simmie Knox was born in 1935 in Aliceville, Alabama. After grad school, he exhibited abstract works and taught at various universities and public schools. Since 1981, he has specialized in oil portraiture, and has been commissioned by everyone from U.S. Supreme Court Justices to celebrities. In 2004, Knox unveiled official portraits of President Bill Clinton and first lady Hillary Clinton at the White House—becoming the first black artist to paint an official presidential portrait.
Born on August 18, 1935, in Aliceville, Alabama, leading African American portrait artist Simmie Knox has created vivid, lifelike renderings of such luminaries as President Bill Clinton and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. He is the son of a carpenter and mechanic. But he spent many of his childhood years in the care of other family members after his parents divorced. Knox grew up poor with most of his family working as sharecroppers, and he himself took to the fields when he was old enough. “We worked literally from sunup till sundown … whatever there was to be done,” he told ABC News, adding, “You didn’t go to school; you worked on the farm.”
Later Knox went to live with his father and stepmother in Mobile, Alabama. There he loved to make little sketches and to play baseball. One of his childhood friends was baseball legend Hank Aaron. At the age of 13, Knox was struck in the eye with a baseball. With encouragement from his teachers at his Catholic school, he started drawing as a way to help his eye recover from the injury. The nuns who educated him recognized his talent and arranged for him to have lessons from a local postal worker. No formal art education was available at his segregated school.
Education and Early Career
After graduating from Central High School in Mobile, Alabama, in 1956, Knox spent several years serving in the military. He then attended Delaware State College as a biology major. While he didn’t excel at science, Knox did some wonderful sketches of microorganisms. One of his professors recommended that he take some art classes. While at Delaware State, Knox completed a full-sized self-portrait, one of his notable early art works.
After completing his studies at the University of Delaware in 1967, Knox enrolled at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. There, he earned a bachelor degree in fine arts in 1970 and a master’s degree in fine arts two years later. At the time, abstract art was all the rage. Knox painted in this style for a time and even got the chance to display his works at a prominent Washington, D.C. gallery. His paintings hung alongside Roy Lichtenstein and other leading artists in this show.
Still Knox wasn’t completely satisfied with his abstract work. He painted a portrait of freed slave and prominent abolitionist Frederick Douglass in 1976, which now part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution. In addition to painting, Knox worked extensively in art education. He held many teaching positions, including being an instructor at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts from 1975 to 1980.
Famed Portrait Artist
By the early 1980s, Knox had devoted himself to realistic portrait work. He explained to The New York Times, “With abstract painting, I didn’t feel the challenge. The face is the most complicated thing there is. The challenge is finding that thing, that makes it different from another face.” Knox found a famous patron in 1986 when he met comedian Bill Cosby. Cosby became an ardent supporter of Knox’s work, hiring for portraits of himself and his family. He also encouraged friends to commission Knox for paintings as well.
Knox soon landed an important assignment: to capture the image of legendary U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Marshall “could tell I was nervous,” Knox told American Artist magazine, adding, “But he told jokes; he told stories about his life. I came away feeling so good about the man.” He completed Marshall’s portrait in 1989 and continued to receive new commissions. Over the years, Knox painted the likeness of baseball great Hank Aaron, former New York City mayor David Dinkins, historian John Hope Franklin and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg among other famous names.
In 2000, Knox received his most famous assignment to date. He was selected to paint the official White House portraits of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton. With this commission, Knox made history. “I realize there has never been an African American to paint a portrait of a president and, being the first, that’s quite an honor and quite a challenge,” he told ABC News. Knox and Bill Clinton bonded over a shared love of jazz.
Knox’s paintings of the Clintons were revealed to the public in a special ceremony at the White House in 2004. According to People magazine, Bill Clinton enjoyed his portrait. Knox told the magazine that Clinton “smiled and yelled, ‘I like it!’—four times—I guess to make sure I got the point.” He hopes to someday paint a portrait of another famous world leader: Nelson Mandela.
Knox works out of his studio—a former garage—at his home in Silver Spring, Maryland. He and his wife Roberta have two children together, Amelia and Zachary. Knox also has a daughter, Sheri, from his first marriage.