Destitution, is an exceptional piece, whose naturalistic realisation of an emaciated old woman clothed in rags, in conforming to the traditional iconography of destitution, seems to embody the fin de siècle sense of degeneracy and decadence, which was felt by some to be the leitmotiv of the era.
The work's date of execution is uncertain, but may have been as early as 1884. Another similar clay sketch can be found in the collection of the Musée Rodin. The sculpture caused a sensation at the 1894 Salon de la Société nationale des Beaux-Arts (Parçay-les-Pins, Maine-et-Loire, musée Jules Desbois). The State commissioned a version in oak-wood (1896, Nancy, musée des Beaux-Arts).
An interesting comparison can be made between this work and two other pieces in the Musée d'Orsay collection: Winter by Auguste Rodin and Clotho by Camille Claudel. The three works are exhibited together, all three artists having used the same model, an elderly Italian woman named Marie Caira. It is not known whether it was Rodin or Desbois who first asked Caira to pose. There are striking stylistic similarities between the three pieces; all the works dating from the period when Desbois and Claudel were both working for Rodin.
Here, Desbois was perpetuating the Middle-Age and Renaissance tradition of funerary statuary: portrayed in this manner, the elderly female subject, her beauty faded, became the universal "vanitas" of the day. Critics of the time hailed it as a masterpiece and it assured the artist a secure place within the French sculptural milieu.