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Bold Stroke

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It’s not unusual for artist Simmie Knox to get the jitters when he unveils an oil portrait for an A-list client. But the stakes were even higher around Christmas 2000, when the locale was the White House and the client getting his first glimpse at the work-in-progress was then President Bill Clinton. At first, Bill “walked around his portrait from every angle, stood back and stared at it for a minute,” recalls Knox, now 68. “Finally he smiled and yelled, ‘I like it!’—four times—I guess to make sure I got the point.”

On June 14, as the first African-American ever commissioned to paint an official presidential portrait, Knox was at the White House once again when his twin paintings of Bill and Hillary Clinton were finally officially unveiled for the public. During an hour-long ceremony in the East Room, President George W. Bush praised Knox’s “skilled hand,” while Clinton cited the Maryland artist’s career as “a part of America’s promise.”

For his part, Knox—the son of an Alabama sharecropper who began sketching to retrain his eye after being hit in the face with a baseball as a boy—described the Clintons as “challenging subjects but not difficult.” Past clients have included Muhammad Ali, baseball great (and childhood friend) Hank Aaron and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recommended Knox to the Clintons. As always, Knox claims he did very little to make his subjects look good beyond offering a little helpful wardrobe advice. President Clinton couldn’t decide which necktie he wanted immortalized. But eventually, says Knox, “we settled on a blue tie with a white stripe—not the one with snowmen—because I told him it would bring out the blue in his eyes.”