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Rubenstein Center Scholarship

Diversity in White House Art: Simmie Knox

On June 14, 2004, the official portraits of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton were unveiled in the East Room of the White House. These paintings made history as the first official White House portraits created by a Black artist, Simmie Knox.

Simmie Knox working on President Clinton's Official White House Portrait.

Courtesy of Simmie Knox

Knox was born on August 18, 1935, and raised by sharecroppers in rural, segregated Alabama. After an unfortunate baseball accident during his childhood, Knox injured his eye and used drawing and sketching to retrain his optic muscles—skills that would come to shape his career trajectory.1 Realizing his passion for art, he took art lessons from a neighborhood tutor and fostered his own talent for drawing and painting while enrolled in Catholic school.

Like so many Black Americans in the twentieth century, Simmie Knox migrated to the North as a young adult to escape segregation and racial discrimination, as well as pursue better economic opportunities. This mass exodus is often referred to as the Great Migration. Knox received his Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts from the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and taught art courses at Delaware State College.

Simmie Knox and President Clinton view Knox's progress on his portrait at the White House.

William J. Clinton Presidential Library

In the years that followed, Simmie Knox explored and exhibited abstract art while living in the Washington, D.C. area. However, he explained that: "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.”2

His true love? Portraiture. In the 1980s, he returned to this traditional style and became well-known for his talent after earning commissions from high-profile African Americans, including actor and comedian Bill Cosby and athletes Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali. Soon, many prominent American public servants and politicians commissioned his work, including Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall, Hugo L. Black, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and a number of U.S. senators and representatives.3

Portrait of First Lady Hillary Clinton by Simmie Knox

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

In 2000, the Clintons commissioned Simmie Knox to paint their official White House portraits at the recommendation of Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The two sat for Knox a few times, but he also worked from photographs to perfect the likenesses of the president and first lady. As a portraitist, Knox’s paintings aim to capture the personality of his sitters in one frame—as a result, he includes symbols, positions, and objects that are important to the subject. Knox’s depiction of Mrs. Clinton, for example, features her White House china state service, as well as a copy of her book, It Takes a Village: and Other Lessons Children Teach Us. Meanwhile, President Clinton’s stance in his portrait is meant to evoke his “straightforward attitude.”4 After completing these portraits, Knox told reporters: “For three years, I’ve been extremely nervous. But today, I put it to rest. I will sleep tonight.”5

As the first Black portraitist commissioned to paint the official portraits of the president and first lady, Knox was aware of this significant achievement, telling reporters that: “Being the first…is rather rewarding. That is what you hope for as an individual—that your presence will make a difference.”6 President Clinton was “profoundly moved” by Knox’s art, and also his life story, which Clinton called “a part of America's promise, that people should rise as far as they can and do whatever their dreams indicate if they're good enough to do it.”7 Today, Simmie Knox’s portraits hang in the White House, where thousands of tourists can appreciate his work each day.

Portrait of President Bill Clinton by Simmie Knox

White House Collection/White House Historical Association