Jakob Steinhardt was born in 1887 in Zerkow in the Province of Posen, the eldest of four children. After finishing high school, he was determined to become a painter. Thanks to help from Ludwig Kaemmerer, his portfolio was appraised by artists including Max Liebermann and Lovis Corinth, which resulted in Steinhardt being awarded a seven-year scholarship. He enrolled in the Academy of the Arts and Crafts Museum in Berlin in 1907 and also studied at the private art school run by Lovis Corinth. In 1907/08 he studied under Herrmann Struck, in whose studio he got to know Ludwig Meidner, who became a friend for life. In 1909 Steinhardt went to Paris to the Académie Julian, after which he attended the studio of Henri Matisse. It was here that Steinhardt became acquainted with Hans Purrmann and Rudolf Levy. In 1918, Steinhardt joined the Berlin Secession. He married Minni Gumpert in 1922. In April 1929, he was elected to the board of the Berlin Secession alongside Max Pechstein, Hans Purrmann, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Eugen Spiro.
In February 1933, Steinhardt was denounced by the caretaker of his residential block and arrested by the Brownshirts, who accused him of being a communist. During his interrogation, Steinhardt was advised to leave the country as swiftly as possible. He left for Palestine soon thereafter, and he and his family settled in Jerusalem. He set up a painting class in his home, was appointed the head of the graphic class of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and was then made the Academy’s director in 1953. His mother and his brother stayed in Germany, as did his sister and her husband. Steinhardt later learnt that they had all been murdered in the concentration camps; he himself never returned to Germany.