Jakub Schikaneder was born in Prague on February 27, 1855, the second son of Karel and Leokadie Schikaneder. His father Karel Fridrich (1811–1871) worked as a military clerk. He received a military discharge for disability in 1836 and then worked as a customs office clerk and was later promoted to the post of deputy at the Imperial and Royal Customs Office headquarters in Prague. His mother Leokadie (1819–1881), née Běhavá, came from the family of a teacher at the St Giles’ Church school.
The family’s modest way of life, however, had another side, a strong theatre tradition reaching back to the mid-18th century. Jakub’s grandfather brought the Schikaneder family to Prague. A singer, actor, composer and playwright, Carl Joseph Schikaneder (1773–1845) was also the nephew of Emanuel Schikaneder (1751–1812), author of the libretto for Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. His five daughters continued the tradition, while his only son – Jakub’s father – chose the more secure profession of civil servant. Jakub grew up in an artistic milieu among the music and song of his aunts, cousins and older brother Karel. However, success and fame were often replaced by decline and poverty, which may have stimulated the strong social feeling that appeared in Schikaneder’s paintings. Jakub, too, displayed acting and musical talent when he was young. He could have inherited the artistic talent from his mother’s side – her brother Antonín Běhavý (1811–1860) was a painter who died while Jakub was still a child. Another gift of the Czech-German family was bilingualism, with Jakub speaking and thinking equally well in Czech and German.
Schikaneder’s life is closely linked with Prague, though unfortunately none of the houses where he lived have survived. The house where he was born at 698 Masná street in the Old Town was demolished in 1887. The family moved often when Jakub was a child. In 1856–1857, the Schikaneders lived at 951 Růžová street in the New Town, in 1860 they moved to the Old Town to house No. 726 at the corner of Dlouhá and Hradební streets and in 1869 they moved to 994 Havlíček (today Senovážné) Square.
Jakub’s father died in 1871 and the family’s social situation took a dramatic turn for the worse. This is documented by the fact that his widow was allocated a poverty allowance by Prague City Hall. From 1872, she and her sons lived in house No. 186 at the corner of Dušní and Masařská streets in the Josefov quarter at the edge of the Jewish Town. By that time, Jakub was a second-year student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague under Professors Josef Matyáš Trenkwald, Antonín Lhota and Jan Sweerts. His classmates and friends included the painters Emanuel Krescenc Liška, Mikoláš Aleš, František Ženíšek and the sculptor Josef Mauder. The group of young artists visited the Unger (later Union) Café in Ferdinand Avenue.
Schikaneder graduated from the Academy in 1878 and obtained a passport to travel to the German countries, France and England on July 1 of the same year. No details of his trips are available, but there is no doubt he visited Paris and had a longer stay in Munich, where the work of his famous countryman Gabriel von Max made a powerful impression on him.
In 1880, Schikaneder and his friend Emanuel Krescenc Liška participated in a competition to decorate the royal box in the National Theatre. The jury awarded them a commission to do three friezes with the theme of Bohemia’s ruling families (the Premyslids, Luxemburgs and Habsburgs) to decorate the men’s salon in the royal box. After the theatre fire of 1881, however, their work – though undamaged – was replaced by that of Václav Brožík. The aging Schikaneder reportedly recalled with bitterness that the committee had not even bothered to tell the two painters their work would not be used.
A bad financial situation in the first half of the 1880s made Schikaneder accept all manner of commissions. He sent his drawings to Ruch, Světozor and Zlatá Praha magazines and illustrated the epic poem For Liberty and Faith by Adolf Heyduk in 1883. He also cooperated with architect Antonín Wiehl, designing sgrafitto decoration for Wiehl’s house (No. 94-XII) in Prague’s Královské Vinohrady quarter in 1882 (since demolished). In 1884, the town hall commissioned a cycle of paintings depicting the Stations of the Cross on Petřín Hill in the al fresco technique after original models by Josef Führich.
Schikaneder never abandoned his ambition to become a well-known painter on the local and European art scenes. He exhibited the monumental canvas (250 x 400 cm – missing today) Repentance of the Lollards (Bekhard Procession, Prayer of the Repentant) in the Lehmann Salon in autumn 1882. One year later, he displayed it at an exhibition in Munich, and in 1884 in Vienna. With regard to the international presentation of his work, Schikaneder chose the historical theme of a religious sect assembled outside the city walls for prayer over a heap of burning books. Schikaneder’s expectations were fulfilled as he was praised by the critics – the prominent art critic Miroslav Tyrš called the canvas a rare artwork and its sale (reportedly to a buyer in Wiesbaden, Germany) brought Schikaneder needed financial resources.
On July 5, 1884, Schikaneder married Emilie Nevolová (1859–1931), daughter of Josef Nevole, a railway clerk in Prague, in the St Nicholas Church in Prague’s Vršovice quarter. The newlyweds moved into the wife’s apartment in house No. 640 at the corner of Rubešova and Jungmannova (today’s Vinohradská) streets in Prague-Vinohrady, where Schikaneder lived until his death (the house was torn down in the 1980s). The Schikaneders’ son Lev Jan was born in May 1885, but died several days later of congenital weakness.
In 1885, Schikaneder was named assistant to František Ženíšek at the School of Decorative Arts in Prague. Later, he became director of a special school of flower painting, and when Ženíšek left the school for the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 1896, Schikaneder took over his decorative painting studio. The professorship enabled him to undertake several study trips in Europe in the 1890s. He repeatedly visited Paris and went as far as Sicily. He travelled across England and Scotland with Josef Thomayer in 1895. Interestingly, Schikaneder spoke English. He also participated in decorating the exhibitions of the School of Decorative Arts at the World Fair in Paris in 1900 and St. Louis, Missouri in 1904.
Schikaneder withdrew from public life at the end of the first decade of the 20th century and no longer exhibited his paintings. He continued teaching at the School of Decorative Arts, even during World War I. His studio was only open to a small group of friends and collectors, such as physician and author Josef Thomayer, lawyer Leopold Katz, pharmacist Karel Vostřebal, Prague mayor Josef Rotnágl and lawyer Josef Šafařík. Schikaneder died suddenly on November 15, 1924, aged 69.