The archaistic decoration of this censer is inspired by ancient bronzes of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The taotie mask remains one of the most enigmatic yet enduring motifs from antiquity. Only one other identical censer is known, with primarily iron-red decoration, from the Qing Court Collection and illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Hong Kong, 1999, pl.86 (fig. 1) and again in Kangxi, Yongzheng, Qianlong Porcelain from the Palace Museum Collection, Hong Kong, 1989, pl. 65. A famille-verte example with similar taotie mask decoration but resting on four lion-mask feet, from the collection of Mr. Henry Hirsch is illustrated in R.L. Hobson, The Later Ceramic Wares of China, New York, 1925, pl. LIII, described as a ‘cricket cage’. A related censer of similar form but decorated in famille-verte with a bamboo motif, formerly in the collection of Lord Kitchner, then in the Percival David Foundation Collection, and now in the collection of the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Illustrated Catalogue of Ch’ing Enamelled Ware in the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1973, pl. XI, A812.
During the Kangxi period, the emperor, an avid student of history, respected and admired the cultural tradition of venerating the past. The famous Ming dynasty writer Wen Zhenheng described the artifacts inspired by antiquity as zhangwu, ‘superfluous things’. This humble term implied that contemporary iterations of works of art inspired by antiquity were mere playthings in comparison to their ancient counterparts. Building on the firmly established cultural tradition to study and learn from antiquity, material adaptations of archaic decorative motifs onto various media provided the Qing dynasty elite with a tangible means to experience and appreciate the distant past in a modern way. For examples of Kangxi period porcelains decorated with large scale taotie masks, see a remarkable zun-form blue and white vase illustrated in The Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities Bulletin, no. 46, (1974), p. 73, where the author, Jan Wirgin, compares it to a covered bowl in the Guimet Museum which appears in several paintings by Willem Kalf, one of which is dated to 1662; and another vase, of fanghu shape with similarly broad bands of large stylized taotie in the Museum fur Kunsthandwerk in Frankfurt am Main illustrated in Gunhild Gabbert, Chinesisches Porzellan, Frankfurt am Main, 1977, pl. 92. A rare blue and white archaistic vessel with similarly tiered taotie masks and with a dated inscription corresponding to the year 1669 was sold at Sotheby's London, 13th December 1988, lot 231. For an example of a Western Zhou dynasty bronze of a type that may have served as inspiration for the present censer, see a bronze gui from the Qing Court Collection, the square base and rounded sides crisply cast with large-scale taotie, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Bronze Ritual Vessels and Musical Instruments, Hong Kong, 2006, pl. 32.