the censer with deep rounded sides resting on three slightly tapered cylindrical legs flanked at the rim by a pair of large upright flaring rectangular loop handles, the body decorated with unusual geometric designs of alternating keyfret and spirals in yellow and green enamels below a band of highly stylised petals, the legs each decorated with a taotie mask on the raised upper section, and encircled by varying archaistic scroll designs separated by two raised gilt bands, the cover with archaistic scroll designs under a broad band of taotie masks on an olive green ground, surmounted by a large gilt-metal knop intricately pierced with two ferocious five-clawed dragons in mutual pursuit of a single 'flaming pearl' amid swirling clouds, the gilt-metal rim incised on the exterior with the six-character mark
This impressive censer represents the apogee of artistic and technical achievement of imperial enamel craftsmanship during the Qianlong reign. Every aspect and execution has been accomplished to the highest standard. The high quality of workmanship is clearly shown by the casting of the taotie-mask feet, the crisply cast pierced knop and the finely painted cloisonn?enamels. The decoration and the choice of colours also reflect the sophistication and confidence among artists to experiment with more unusual designs and colour schemes. The reign mark, like other cloisonn?enamels of the period, is boldly placed on the exterior, emphasizing the powerful personal involvement of the Emperor.
The censer is of ding form, based on the shape of archaic ritual vessels of the Shang Dynasty. Its cauldron-like shape, standing on three short slightly curved legs, reflects the predilection in the Ming and Qing times for vessels in the form of archaic bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Although the overall outlines of the archaic models were retained, the imperial craftsmen liberally interpreted original decorative motifs, such as the taotie masks, incorporating them with more unusual geometric designs across the body.
This censer was most likely a centerpiece for a five-piece altar set, flanked by a pair of candlesticks and two vases, or possibly one of four censers flanking a throne in the palace, such as those in the Qianqinggong. Cloisonn?enamel was commissioned and manufactured at the imperial cloisonn?workshops under the supervision of the Palace Workshops (Zaoban chu). The glamourous and striking nature of cloisonn?enamel made it a favourite with the Emperor. It not only served as a decorative palace furnishing, but also, as in the case of this piece, was used in daily rituals, banquets and imperial ceremonies. In fact, in the 27th year of his reign, Qianlong merged the painting studio with the enamel workshop, enabling the painters to use their expertise and skill to engage in the decoration of enamel work. It was during this period that immense artistic and technical advances were achieved in the manufacture of cloisonn?enamel.
See a pair of comparable censers flanking an imperial throne in the Qingqinggong, illustrated by Helmut Brinker and Albert Lutz in Chinesisches Cloisonne ?Die Sammlung Pierre Uldry, Zurich, 1985, p. 24, fig. 4. Compare similar censers as part of Wugong alter sets in the Yonghegong, the Lamaist Temple in Beijing, which was built as an imperial residence in 1694 and transformed into a Buddhist monastery in 1744 by Rolpe Dorje, by order of Qianlong. One of these alter sets was brought to France in the aftermath of the 1860 sack of the summer palace, and is displayed in Fontainebleau, illustrated in Le Musée Chinois de l’impératrice Eugénie, Paris, 1994, p. 26, fig. 18. Compare another related censer and cover, but of a smaller size with archaistic motifs in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan, illustrated in Gugong Falangqi Xuancang, Taipei, 1971, pl. 20.
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