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Painter Simmie Knox is the first African-American artist to create an official U.S. presidential portrait. He debuted his portrait of President Bill Clinton in 2004.
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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.
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