On the left pilaster of The Gates of Hell, commissioned from Rodin in 1880, there is already a figure of a gaunt old woman in bas-relief. But who had the idea to pick up this theme again several years later? Was it Jules Desbois (1851-1935) who got an Italian woman to pose for his group Death and the Woodcutter (now destroyed) started in 1887? Was it Rodin? A widely circulated anecdote recounts how he was struck when he saw the model posing for Desbois, and borrowed both the old woman and his subject from him. The same old woman may have posed for Camille Claudel for her Clotho (Torso at the Musée d'Orsay), and for the old woman dragging the man towards death in her autobiographical group The Age of Maturity (Musée d'Orsay).
In 1892, a bronze version of Rodin's sculpture entered the Musée du Luxembourg under the title She who was once the Beautiful Helmet-Maker's Wife, inspired by the poem of François Villon (circa 1431- after 1463). As for the marble version kept at the Musée d'Orsay, it was Victor Peter (1840-1918), one of Rodin's marble carvers, who produced this one. In a letter to his patron dated 17 January 1890, he expresses the desire to "create [...] part of a nude old person, very wrinkled and pronounced, something which would resemble if I can put it like this, a cast of nature in marble [...] for example, like the torso of the old woman I saw at your studio yesterday." Peter carved the marble over the following months, and one can read, in his correspondence with Rodin, his impatience to show the master how the work was progressing. Finally, it was through a note scribbled on a visiting card that Rodin announced to Peter on the14 January 1891: "I have sold the old woman/ your R".