Simmie Knox became the first African American commissioned to paint the official portrait of a president of the United States. The oil on linen portrait was unveiled in the White House on June 18, 2004, and earned Knox a place in American history. Initially an abstract painter, he changed his subject matter early on, became a portrait painter, and for more than twenty-five years has painted likenesses of people of different races and various positions in life. He has concentrated successfully on capturing the real personality, lifestyle, likenesses, and experiences of his subjects.
Born in Aliceville, Alabama, on August 18, 1935, Simmie Knox is the son of Simmie Knox Sr., a carpenter and mechanic, and Amelia Knox. His parents divorced when Knox was three years old. While still a toddler, he moved to Leroy, Alabama—near Mobile—and lived on a farm of sharecroppers with his grandfather Ben, his paternal aunt Rebecca, and her eight children. The family worked on the farm from daybreak to sundown. School was not an option, only work on the farm. This arrangement was necessary because, until he was nine, his father lived and worked in another city. Then he moved to Mobile and lived with his father and his stepmother Lucille Knox.
Early on Knox demonstrated an interest in drawing. To entertain his family and friends, he drew funny renditions of Batman and Superman. Playing baseball was also one of the youngster's favorite pastimes; he played the game with friends, one of whom was Hank Aaron, a neighbor. When he was thirteen years old, an eye injury that resulted from being hit by a ball forced Knox to avoid the game for over a year. Concerned about his difficulty in focusing his eyes, a doctor recommended that Knox concentrate on drawing to retrain his eye muscles. The nuns at Heart of Mary School, which he attended in the community, provided drawing experiences for him. Among his early renditions were the Stations of the Cross, which impressed the nuns considerably. Knox became the one to provide art images whenever they were needed. No formal art instruction was available; instead, the nuns arranged for impromptu drawing sessions with the postal carrier on Saturday mornings.
Knox graduated from Mobile's Central High School in 1956. Later, he volunteered for military service, where he remained for three years. In an interview with the author, Knox said that he "wanted to be eligible for the benefits that the military provided."
On leaving military service, Knox went to Milford, Delaware, where his parents had then lived. In 1962, he entered historically black Delaware State College in Dover and majored in biology. For his classes he drew anatomically correct figures and demonstrated an interest in floral watercolors. His images depicted such skill that he changed his major to art education; however, Delaware State could not meet his needs.
In 1961 at twenty-six years of age, Knox attended university in the morning, and in the afternoons he worked in a textile factory in Milford. He persuaded a friend to sit for him in his dormitory at night so Knox could practice sketching. He also sat before a mirror and painted his first self-portrait, a pastel. He concluded that he wanted to become an artist.
Referring to racial segregation, he told Jose Antonio Vargas for the Washington Post that he was "suffering for silly reasons." He began to question who he was and what he wanted to be. "Once in your life … ou'll sit and … really look at yourself, and ask: Who am I? What am I? What kind of person do I want to be? I knew, deep within me, that I wanted to be an artist." The piece helped to secure a place for him in Tyler School of Art later on.
In 1963 Knox transferred to the University of Delaware in Newark and majored in art education, but later he changed his major to fine arts. While at the university he taught at local high schools for a while. On recommendation from a faculty member at the University of Delaware, Knox continued his studies at Temple University's Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, where in 1970 he earned the B.F.A. degree magna cum laude. He enrolled in the graduate program at Tyler and taught part-time at historically black Lincoln University in Lincoln University, Pennsylvania. Knox completed graduate work in 1972 and was awarded the M.F.A. degree. When he left Tyler, Knox, like many other artists of that period, was an abstract painter. Although he had been taught the elements of design and the principles of composition, he had no formal training in figure painting. In truth, he had originally wanted to become a portrait painter; but his professors at Tyler had encouraged him to work in an abstract style. His interest in portrait painting never ended, though; now he saw it as a new challenge in art, and he wanted to develop his talent in that area. He read widely and applied what he had learned to his native talent, thus evolving his art of self-portraiture. Because he honed his skill on his own, sometimes he refers to himself as a self-taught portrait painter.
- Born in Aliceville, Alabama on August 18
- Joins the U.S. Military service
- Enrolls in Delaware State College
- Transters to Unviersity of Delaware
- Receives B.F.A. Degree from Tyler School of Art, Temple University
- Receives M.F.A. degree from Tyler School of Art
- Directs Museum of Art, Washington, D.C.; paints portrait of Martin Luther King Jr.
- Paints Portrait of Frederick Douglass
- specializes in portraiture
- Paints Portrait of Thurgood Marshall; Later includes many others
- Unveils portraits in white House of Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton
- Unveils portraits of John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin
Knox had a continuing desire to teach art in public schools and did so for eighteen years. After graduating from Tyler, he taught at historically black Bowie State College in Bowie, Maryland. For one year (1974) he was director of the Museum of African Art in downtown Washington. He left for the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Washington, where he taught for five years, until 1980, when the Ellington school eliminated the art department.
Whenever Knox participated in art shows, he did so as an abstract artist. In 1971 Knox participated in the Thirty-Second Biennial of Contemporary American Painting at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., in which his abstract art was exhibited. During this time he painted incessantly, producing still lifes such as pots with cherries, strawberries, and pears. For several years he did large-scale abstracts and exhibited his work at the Corcoran and the Kreeger Museum, also in Washington. In 1972, he moved to the Washington area, and beginning in 1981 he specialized in oil portraiture full time. Although he found portrait painting complicated, he found no other form of painting more challenging and interesting than creating a likeness of the human face.
Knox and his family lived in cramped quarters in the Adams Morgan section of the city. Their two-bedroom apartment provided one bedroom for the family and another for Knox's studio. His wife, Roberta Knox, and their children took his paintings to Eastern Market on the weekends, leased a small space (five by seven feet) and displayed his still lifes for sale. Though his works sold in this humble fashion, one of them, a portrait of Frederick Douglass, has been in the Smithsonian Institution since 1975.
Knox credits comedian Bill Cosby for jump-starting his career. For twenty years Cosby saw that Knox received commissions to paint family and friends. Knox painted Cosby's son Ennis, who was murdered in January 1997. The portrait, a gift from Knox, hangs over the fireplace in Bill and Camille Cosby's Manhattan home. "It is a portrait that projects every inch and every centimeter of our son," Cosby told Jose Antonio Vargas for the Washington Post.
Paints President's Portrait
Although Knox had painted portraits of a number of celebrities and famous officials, he earned a highly visible place in history on June 18, 2004, when his oil portrait of President Bill Clinton was unveiled during a White House ceremony in the East Wing. He had become the first black artist to paint an official portrait of a U.S. president. He also painted the portrait of former first lady and later senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The portraits are oil on linen and took two years to complete. Although official portraits of U.S. presidents and first ladies have been unveiled at the same time, rarely has the same artist created both. When Clinton sought a portrait painter for the work, he was referred to Knox and visited his office. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, whose portrait Knox had done early on, told the Clintons that she liked Knox's portrait of her. Ginsburg had seen Knox's portrait of Spottswood Robinson, who once served as chief judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The fact that he had painted many of Clinton's friends helped to spur the president's interest in Knox.
Shortly before Christmas of 1992, Knox was invited to the White House. He took his portfolio with him but had misgivings about his being selected. The president inspected Knox's portfolio and asked Knox to do a study of him; later he did the final portrait. During the visit Knox snapped photos of Clinton, as Clinton described what the portrait should include. He wanted specific props, such as an American flag and several military medallions. Knox worked through the Christmas holidays and returned with a still-wet study in oil showing Clinton in five different poses. Clinton selected a three-quarter-length standing image. Clinton especially liked the way Knox captured his hands, showing a confident and pleasant look.
Paints Other Famous Subjects
In addition to his first two figure paintings—Martin Luther King Jr. in 1974 and Frederick Douglass in 1975—the long list of portraits that Knox has painted includes educator Mary McLeod Bethune, writer Alex Haley, comedian Bill Cosby and family (twelve portraits between 1983 and 1991), boxer Muhammad Ali, early black U.S. senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, singer Paul Robeson, voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer with civil rights activist Ella Baker, baseball player Hank Aaron and wife Billy, lawyer Johnny Cochran, New York mayor David Dinkins, Dorothy Height (then of the National Council of Negro Women), Department of Energy secretary Hazel O'Leary, historian John Hope Franklin, and Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Franklin also commissioned Knox to paint a portrait of himself and his wife, Aurelia Elizabeth Franklin, whom he met at Fisk University in Nashville while they were students. In 2005 Knox unveiled the portrait for the couple at Fisk in the library renamed in their honor.
After more than twenty-five years as a portrait painter, Knox remains convinced that it is challenging and interesting to paint a human face. To be good at the task is difficult for an artist who wants to be successful. He believes that the painting must present an accurate likeness of the subject. It must tell a story; it tells the artist about that person's experiences and the things that helped to shape the subject as a person. "One must communicate a subject's character, spirit, and personality, and everything must speak the energy of the subject," he told the Washington Post.
Knox works from his single-car garage studio of his home in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he lives with his wife Roberta. He has three children—Amelia, Zachary, and Sheri. Daughter Sheri was born during his marriage in 1961 to Marceline Ward. He loves music, especially jazz, and saw a connection between President Clinton's love for the saxophone and his love for jazz. To relax, the soft-spoken, humble man listens to jazz and paints; sometimes he is up as early as 2:00 a.m. to begin his favorite pastime. Knox is on demand for interviews with journalists who are on a tight deadline, who want an interview, a photograph, or a piece of his work. As successful as he is, Knox has one unfilled passion—to paint a portrait of former South African president Nelson Man-dela. He also plans to paint historical themes, including the Civil Rights movement.
The Clinton portraits, unveiled in a White House ceremony in 2004, introduced Simmie Knox to thousands of people, and he continues to inspire countless artists who want to become known, who now have new hope, and who now know the beauty of what can be created with oil and canvas. In the Louisville Scene, Robert Hall of the Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture (of the Smithsonian Institution) sums up the work of Knox at the White House and the lasting impression that he has made: "It's very special when you're asked to do a White House painting. What you're doing is painting your place in history."
"Now, Painter to the President." Newsweek (26 February 2001): 9.
Vargas, Jose Antonio. "A Painter Draws Attention at Last." Washington Post (16 June 2004): C1.
Knox, Simmie. Interview with Jessie Carney Smith, 29 April 2005.
――――. Interview with Jessie Carney Smith, 30 November 2004.
Jennings, Peter. "Person of the Week: Simmie Knox." http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/PersonOfWeek/story?id=1317225 (Accessed 23 November2004).
Klug, Foster. "Portrait Artist Does What He Likes: Listens to Jazz and Paints." Louisville Scene, 4 July2004. http://www.louisvillescene.com/2004/07/4arts_portrait.html (Accessed 27 November 2004).
"Simmie Knox, an Exceptional Portrait Artist." African American Registry. http://www.aaregistry.com/african_american_history/1642Simmie_Knox (Accessed 23 November 2004).
"Simmie Knox 'Takes Five.'" (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel Online. 16 June 2004. http://www.jsonline.com/news/gen/june04/236882.asp (Accessed 28November 2004).
Simmie Knox Website. http://www.simmieknox.com/bio2.htm (Accessed 23 November 2004).
Jessie Carney Smith