“Killing is not nearly as easy as the innocent believe.” - JK Rowling
Jakub (or Jakob) Schikaneder (February 27, 1855, Prague – November 15, 1924, Prague) was a Bohemian painter who was born into a German family. He was 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. Despite the family’s poor background, Jakub was able to pursue his studies, thanks in part to his family’s love of art; an ancestor was Urban Schikaneder, the elder brother of the impresario and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder (the librettist of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera “The Magic Flute”).
After having completed his studies in Prague and Munich (1871–1879), Schikaneder, alongside Emanuel Krescenc Liška, was involved in the furnishing of the royal box in the National Theatre in Prague; however, this work was lost in a fire in 1881. 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. He is buried in Vinohrady Cemetery in Prague.
Schikaneder is known for his muted paintings of the outdoors, often melancholy and lonely in mood. His paintings often feature poor and outcast figures, these genre paintings making some social or emotional comment. Other motifs favoured by this artist were autumn and winter, corners and alleyways in the city of Prague and the banks of the Vltava – often in the early evening light, or cloaked in mist. His first well-known work was the monumental painting “Repentance of the Lollards” (2.5m × 4m), now lost. The National Gallery in Prague held an exhibition of his paintings from May 1998 until January 1999.
The painting above, “Murder in the House” Národní Galerie v Praze (1890; Oil on canvas, 203 × 321 cm) is typical of Schikaneder’s oeuvre. Dark, muted tones, a lugubrious subject and an image that tells a tragic story. There is an air of mystery and intrigue in the painting, amplified by the young woman’s bloody corpse on one side, counterbalanced by the group of people on the left. Each figure standing is displaying a different emotion and different depth of involvement with the crime and dead woman. There is tension and apprehension in the piece, amplified by the composition and the realist manner in which the artist has portrayed the event.
Schikaneder presented this work in 1890 at the international exhibition in Berlin, Germany. The painting was a sensation in Prague one year later at the Jubilee Exhibition’s Czech art display. Reportedly, however, the crowds of visitors mostly wondered if the painting depicted the young girl’s murder or suicide.
Recent research identified the specific place that inspired Schikaneder. The dark courtyard was actually the opening of the dead-end Špitálská street leading from Rabínská street in the Jewish Quarter. Schikaneder was very familiar with the Prague Ghetto before its clearance, as he had lived in house No. 186 at the corner of Dušní and Masařská streets in Josefov at the ghetto’s periphery since 1872. In the late 19th century, the Jewish Ghetto was a social ghetto, too, where the poorest of Prague’s inhabitants lived. In this context, Schikaneder’s painting can be seen as social criticism.
In Schikaneder’s oeuvre, “Murder in the House” closes a continuous series of artworks with the theme of the tragic fate of women. In Czech art of the last third of the 19th century, it represents a rare attempt to express both realist and naturalist tendencies in painting.