Tagore began painting late in his life, as he was nearing the age of seventy. In a letter from 1928 to Rani Mahalanobis he says: "The most important item in the bulletin of my daily news, is my painting. I am hopelessly entangled in the spell that the lines have cast all around me...I have almost managed to forget that there used to be a time when I wrote poetry. The subject matter of a poem can be traced back to some dim thought in the mind...while painting, the process adopted by me is quite the reverse. First, there is the hint of a line, then the line becomes a form...this creation of form is an endless wonder. If I were a finished artist, I probably would have followed a preconceived idea in making a picture...but it is far more exciting when the mind is seized by something outside of it, some compulsive surprise element gradually assuming an understandable form." (Kshitis Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, New Delhi, 1988, p. 51)
Tagore's paintings were displayed publicly for the first time in Paris in 1930, followed by an exhibition in Calcutta in 1931. At about the same time Tagore began to create portraits and it were these portraits and figures, which he executed in a variety of styles, that elicited the most interest. By about 1932, Tagore seems to have become interested in self-portraits and it is believed that the current work dates from about this period. As with many of his other self-portraits the work has a prophet-like serenity mixed with a sense of inner anguish.
Paritosh Sen, in his article on The Figure in Indian Art, published in 1974, heralds Rabindranath Tagore as the "first modern Indian painter, for his paintings do not show any conscious borrowing from anywhere and because they reflect the spirit of the age." (Paritosh Sen, 'The Figure in Indian Art', Lalit Kala Contemporary 17, 1974, p. 10)
For a similar self-portrait, see, Rabindranath Tagore: A Collection of Essays, Ed. Ratan Parimoo, New Delhi, 1989, p. 75, pl. 99.