Cabriole Leg

Note: This glossary entry has taken on a life of its own: in bits and pieces, details about cabriole's history keep arriving. My inclination is leave the account where it is, at least until I locate something more definite about cabriole designs in China (as noted by Joseph Aronson and Louise Ade Boger, both in boxes below.) Moreover, I need first to give more consideration to the notion that that cabriole's shape is inspired by an animal's leg. For the Huguenot, Daniel Marot, it is supposed to be the leg of a deer; for the Egyptians, is the inspiration the leg of a bull? And, whether there is any chance of the French, i.e., Marot, using the Egyptian bull's leg as a model for what ultimately became the Queen Anne leg?

As well as legs in furniture designs (box below), the Oxford English Dictionary links cabriole to ballet and horse's stepping, both of which served to bestow "cabriole" as an identifiable design feature on furniture:

4. A form of curved leg, frequent in Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture, so called from its resemblance to a quadruped's foreleg making a leap or caper.

1888 J. Marshall in Catalog of an Exhibiton of Decorative Handiwork, Edinburgh[?]. 59 Settees and chairs with their cabriole legs and lion-claw feet. 1902 L. V. Lockwood Colonial Furniture of America -- search for "cabriole" in this online version Fifty-six Walnut and Inlay Cabriole-legged Dressing-table. 1906 Helen Churchill Hungerford Candee, Decorative Styles and Periods in the Home London: F.A. Stokes, page 202 The cabriole leg is the one great point of this decorative period with which collectors ... must arm themselves. 1966 A. W. LEWIS Glossary of Woodworking Terms 11 Cabriole leg, furniture leg which curves outwards at the top and inwards at the bottom.

According to Joseph Aronson (in The Book of Furniture and Decoration: Period and Modern New York: Crown Publishers, 1936; rev, 1941), page 135:

joseph aronson dating cabriole leg
The cabriole leg is traced back to Egypt and especially China, the claw-and-ball foot representing the three-toed claw of the Chinese dragon holding the mystic Buddhistic jewel. Lacquering reached its height

(A caveat with Aronson: We cannot question Aronson's authority, I believe, as the sources that I have read respect him. However, I do have some quibbles. First, Aronson's reference to cabriole seems to be confined to the leg's "claw-foot", when most concern for the cabriole shape is the entire leg, especially including the bulbous knee, said to have the shape of an animal's leg. Second, while Aronson supplies a drawing of the "claw-foot ... holding the mystic Buddhistic jewel", his information comes without any citation of an authority. I will continue to look, though.)

The passage in the box below captures succinctly the people and events associated with the origin and impact of the cabriole design:

... During the reign of William and Mary a fuller French influence was apparent than in the preceding style. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that under Louis XIV all the arts were strongly organized and developed, and, as a result, France became a center of great activity and dissemination in all branches of the arts. Her influence continued to affect Britain and the other European countries to a greater or less extent throughout the 18th century. An impetus to the French influence in Britain was provided by the immigration of highly skilled Huguenot craftsmen who fled France after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Undoubtedly the most celebrated of these Huguenot refugees was Daniel Marot, French architect, furniture designer and engraver of ornament, who sought refuge in Holland and later came to Britain in 1694. Marot's designs were based on the style of Louis XIV and his later work showed a blending of Dutch and French designs. He was taken into the service of William of Orange, who appointed him his chief architect, and later he followed him to Britain when he became King William III. It has not been definitely ascertained whether he worked on the interior decoration of Hampton Court Palace or not.

However, the interior decoration and much of the furniture bear unmistakable traces of certain features characteristic of his engraved designs and arrangements. The corner chimneypieces surmounted with tiers of shelves, mirrors, sconces and the formal beds at the palace strongly mirrored Marot's style. It may be that he furnished the drawings to some of the French craftsmen working on the interior decorations for the palace whose names appear in the Royal Household accounts. Regardless of whether Marot did or did not work on the palace, his books of engraved designs exerted wide influence on contemporary English taste and he was undoubtedly responsible for introducing into Britain new forms and style of ornament from abroad. In fact, it is permissible to say that he practically founded a school. The prevailing characteristics of his style were splendor and elaboration. His designs for furniture were remarkable for their lavish display of Louis XIV Baroque motifs. Marot's work shows that he was an artist of rare capability and that he had thoroughly mastered the principles of French design. He left Britain to return to Holland some time during or after the year 1698. Marot, who was born in Paris around 1662, died in Holland around 1752.


During the reign of William III (1650-1702), the Stadholder of Holland, the cabriole leg is in the process of evolution. It is generally accepted that this distinctive form of leg originates in China.

It seems that the word cabriole -- a French dancing term meaning a leap -- comes from the Italian word capriola meaning a goat's leap.

The leg is a decorative form of a four-footed animal's front leg from the knee downward. The top curves outward as a knee and then curves inward toward the lower part just above the foot where it curves outward again and forms the foot.

The cabriole leg has the contour of a cyma curve with the convex part at the top.

Introduced in French furniture late in the Louis XIV style, this early cabriole leg terminates in a cloven hoof foot or pied de biche.

Introduced in Britain from the Continent around 1700 and for the next fifty years all the fashionable furniture, both on the Continent and in Britain, was designed with a cabriole leg.

In Britain the cabriole leg most frequently terminates in a claw-and-ball foot and in France in a French whorl foot.

Due to the vogue for Gothic and Chinese ornament and detail in Britain -- from around 1750 to 1760 -- the straight leg supplants the cabriole leg in some of the cabinetwork.

However, the cabriole leg continues to be used on furniture designed in the French taste.

As a result of Robert Adam's influence the cabriole leg was generally discarded around 1770 in favor of the straight leg based on the style of Louis XVI.

Nevertheless Hepplewhite and his school occasionally employed the cabriole leg on a few fashionable models, such as chairs, designed in the French taste. A decidedly attenuated cabriole leg persisted longest in France on the very small occasional table.

Source: Louise Ade Boger, The Complete Guide to Furniture Styles New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969; -- selections; also, there is more to read here about cyma and cabriole as featured in Queen Anne and Chippendale in 18th century furniture making.

egyptian cabriole leg in laszlo katz 1970

In conducting research for this project, maybe already you have detected that I am looking at numerous sources. After recording my "caveat" -- i.e., Aronson's comment, above -- I encountered the photo on the left (among several others) in Laszlo Katz 1970 book, The Art of Woodworking and Furniture Apreciation. Katz was reputed to be an outstanding woodworker and a aficionado of furniture making history. I have a copy of his 1970 book, and have no reservations about his reputation, but I do find puzzling his failure to see the resemblance between the legs in the Egyptian bed, 3400 BC, and the cabriole legs, 1700. (Additional details in another photo of this bed, but with "bed clothes":


Bed standing on bull's feet that are mortised and lashed with rope to the rails. Headrest carved of wood. Middle Kingdom Linen sheets, Deir El Bahri, Thebes. Image below.

Dating back to London at 1700, when Queen Anne style emerged,

...a cabriole is a form of leg on a chair, table, or buffet. At the knee, the leg swells out convexly and at the ankle, it recedes concavely. Various types of feet are combined with the cabriole leg. This type of leg is used extensively on Queen Anne furniture.

(Sources: Home Craftsman 4 1935 July-August page 260)

Obviously, the good editors of Home Craftsman, writing in 1935, did not have an opportunity to consult the earlier research by H. Avray Tipping -- in the Burlington Magazine, cited in Sources below. Nor is it likely that Home daniel marot oeuvres Craftsman editors would be familiar with either Daniel Marot, the designer, whose Oeurvres (1712) are cited in the image posted on the left, or William Hogarth, who celebrated the Queen Anne shape -- image below -- in The Analysis of Beauty (1753), even though these sources where on shelves in New York Public Library, just a few blocks away from the offices of Home Craftsman.

Incidentally, neither Marot's Oeuvres nor Hogarth's The Analysis of Beauty are posted fulltext on the Internet at the moment.

Source of text below: from Google Print entry on Internet of Neil Kamil's Fortress of the Soul: Violence , Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Hugenot's New World, 1517-1751. Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 580.

"The line of beauty"

Contextualizing the aesthetics of natural philosophy and the formal logic of perpetual motion was precisely what Hogarth had in mind when he called the cyma-recta or S-curve the line of beauty." On the title page of The Analysis of Beauty, the subtitle of which is Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (1753), Hogarth's critique of the "fluctuation" of modern tastes in fashion, are variations of his serpentine line. He chose to focus on and illustrate a form widely understood among connoisseurs of French rate as an object of Huguenot artisanal manufacture: a curved chair leg (fig. 14.3.[directly below, on left] boxes 49, 50 [both boxes 49 and 50 enlarged and set to left and right, respectively]), Hogarth was aware that knowledge of the curved leg in London was traceable at least to 1702, when the Huguenot architect and designer Daniel Marot (16611752) published his first collection of design, containing 236 leaves of engraved plates." [This is the citation given by Kamil for Marot's 1702 collection of leaves:

Daniel Marot, Oeuvres: Contenant plusiers penssez utile aux architectes, peintres, sculpteurs, orfevres et jardiniere, et autres; le toutes en faveure de ceux qui s'appliquerent aux beaux arts The Hague: P. Husson, 1702).

click here for a bio of Marot, although without mention of his creation of cabriole leg shape.]

hogarth 1753 frontispiece

Marot entered William III's service in London as a refugee of 1685. Yet the Oxford English Dictonary shows that the word cabriole was first used in English as early a the sixteenth century, although not specifically in reference to an article of furniture. Rather, it signified the spirited caper of a leaping goat or horse. Thomas Fitch, a Boston upholsterer of leather chairs, called such a leg a "horse bone" or "Crookt Foot" in his account hook, a lexical pattern that soon became common in appraisals of chairs with these legs. Such legs were identified as ubiquitous on artifacts of politeness in probate inventories taken in affluent colonial households." Why serpentine chair components were idealized in British-American transatlantic culture, and hence considered analogous to a part of natural bodies essential to the "caper" of politeness, is also essential to the natural philosophy of Noon.

(Permission requested from Johns Hopkins University Press 3-22-07 for posting the image and text above.)

Another treatment of cabriole legs is in Jacques-Andre Roubo, L'Art du Mensuisier, 1769. Roubo's woodworker's manual deserves to be better known among today's woodworkers, even if it's text is locked in the font of 18th century French. (See additional comments on Roubo's by clicking here and scrolling down to 1764 .)

Below is Plate 227, from Jacques-Andre Roubo, with the diagrams for cutting the cabriole shape.

(Page 14 of Norman Vandal's Queen Anne Furniture, 1990, shows a fragment of the same plate, plus a portion of Plate 226. Vandal, page 15, also gives a plate showing diagrams cabriole leg construction techniques in Denis Diderot's Recueil des Planches sur Les Sciences, 1762. For more on Diderot. click here for access to the ARTFL project at the University of Chicago. For an example of cabriole legs, using Vandal as a model, click here.)

diagram from jacques-andre roubo, 1769, for cutting cabriole shape
making cabriole legs with hand tools late 19c

On the left, the gifted artist and chronicler of woodworking and furniture making, Aldren Watson, shows the processes of creating cabriole legs with hand tools. (Click here for an account of Watson and his work.) This image comes from page 153 of Watson's Country Furniture, New York: Thomas Y Crowel, 1974.

The Queen Anne chair on the right, above, dates to 1705. My source is G M Ellwood, English Furniture and Decoration, 1680 to 1800
Stuttgart: Julius Hoffmann, 1909, page 42.

The chair on the left is one of five that I have owned for at least two decades, but know nothing of its lineage. Well, in an odd way, I do know a little: About 30 years ago, I saw in a woodworker's manual by Franklin Gottshall the instructions on how to construct these chairs. Search as might, today, I can't relocate Gottshall's instructions.

The Queen Anne Leg in Popular Culture

Only infrequently does information like who is responsible for designing the curve of the Queen Anne leg penetrate into the popular press. Below, from the New York Times is one of the rare examples where Marot's gift to mankind is acknowledged.

queen anne chair 1705

It was probably the very day furniture was invented that seating order became a measure of social status. Today it's about being to the left or right of the host, at the head table, in the front row. In Tudor Britain it wasn't about where but on what. Only the man of the house or important guests got the chairs. And beautiful chairs they were, symbols of authority, carved of oak and fitted with cushions. Women and children were relegated to sorry little stools bereft of ornament and low enough that a lady's hems ended up in a damp heap on the floor. ...

In the "Collector's Favorites" room of the show, two chairs reflect the direct influence of French craftsmen after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685, leading many Protestants to flee France for exile in English workrooms.

The two walnut chairs (whose silk velvet upholstery was added later) are designs from the studio of the exiled Daniel Marot, a French architect, decorator and furniture designer who styled himself the ''architect of the King of Britain,'' in this case William of Orange. The curved legs that he originated were precursors of the cabriole style popular in France and during the reign of Queen Anne (1702-14).

Source: Claire Wilson "The Seats of Power (The Beds, Too)", New York Times, February 28, 2003

queen anne chair

Sources: Home Craftsman 4 1935 July-August page 260; Joseph Aronson,The Book of Furniture and Decoration: Period and Modern New York: Crown Publishers, 1936; rev, 1941; Neil Kamil Fortress of the Soul: Violence, Metaphysics, and Material Life in the Hugenot's New World, 1517-1751. Baltimore Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005, page 580; H. Avray Tipping, "English Furniture of the Cabriole Period (1700-1760):-- I-Drawer-Fitted Furniture", The Burlington Magazine 32, no 183 June 1918, pages 228-299, 232-234; H. Avray Tipping, "English Furniture of the Cabriole Period (1700-1760). I-Seat-Fitted Furniture, The Burlington Magazine 33, no 187 (October 1918), pages 134-135, 138-140; Claire Wilson "The Seats of Power (The Beds, Too)", New York Times, February 28, 2003; Norman Vandal, The Queen Anne Chair -- finally, some links on cabriole and Queen Anne styling: Link to a discussion on the Furniture Society forum about the cabriole leg and Daniel Marot link to 1976 Fine Woodworking article by Franklin H. Gottshall, "Queen Anne: Styling Elements in Table Designs"