The present vase is one of the most spectacular imperial cloisonné enamel vessels commissioned by the 18th-century Qing court. It is distinguished by the massive size, superb quality of casting and enamelling, and the powerful and the rare representation of taotie masks in relief.
A major influence on both the shape and decoration of enamel wares during the 18th century was the interest in antiquity evinced by the emperors themselves and other members of the elite. The expense of fine cloisonné enamel wares was such that only members of this group would have had access to them. This interest in antiquity resulted in archaism being a significant aspect of the designs of cloisonné enamels. This was not a new development in the Qing dynasty, but can be said to have reached its zenith in the 18th century. The publication of illustrated books purporting to show bronze objects from antiquity provided inspiration for the decorative arts as early as the Song dynasty. Some of these were catalogues of imperial collections, such as those of the Northern Song Emperor Huizong and the Qing dynasty Qianlong Emperor.
The shape of this remarkable vessel is closely modelled after an archaic bronze hu, such as an example dating to the Zhou period published in the Xiqing Gujian, the fourty-volume catalogue of the ancient bronzes in the collection of the Qianlong Emperor (fig. 1). The current vase has reinterpreted the angular taotie mask on the original bronze prototype with a more fluid version, presenting it in a powerful manner by reserving the colourful cloisonné enamel facial features in relief against the gilt-bronze ground. The addition of gilt-bronze interlocking teeth in high relief out of a large mouth bordered by flames further enhances the dramatic visual impact.
While the taotie mask is one of the most popular motifs on archaistic cloisonne enamel vessels of the Qing dynasty, it is extremely rare to find it rendered in relief and in such a significant size as in the case of the current vase. Compare a large cloisonné pou (44 cm. high, 48 cm. wide) of the Qianlong period decorated with taotie masks on the body but without the treatment of relief from the Juan Jose Amezaga Collection, sold at Christie’s Paris, 13 June 2007, lot 25 (fig. 2). The Amezaga example has four relief-decorated mask-form handles on the shoulders, but much smaller in size and serve more as a supporting role to the overall design.
It is interesting to compare the current vase to a champlevé and gilt-bronze archaistic vase of the Qianlong period from a private European collection sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 May 2013, lot 2068 (fig. 3). Although completed in a different enamelling technique, it is decorated with interlaced scrollwork emerging from stylised taotie masks and terminating in dragon-heads, and similarly reserved on the gilt-bronze ground.
The quality of enamelling on the current vase is especially refined among 18th-century imperial cloisonné enamel vessels. The shaped panels on the neck have an additional outline in blue in contrast to most other contemporaneous cloisonné enamel vessels with only a single border in black enamel, such as the massive tripod censer with phoenix handles sold at Christie’s Hong Kong, 29 November 2017, lot 2915. For another cloisonné enamel vessel with a similar double-band border but in black and red, refer to the vase with phoenix handles offered in the current sale, see lot 2809. The meticulous depiction of phoenix shown in profile with pink bodies and blue plumage on a dense ground of tree peonies is similar in style and theme to a cloisonné enamel rhyton attached with a gilt-bronze phoenix dating to the Qianlong period, from the Robert Chang Collection (fig. 4), and included in the exhibition Colorful, Elegant, and Exquisite: A Special Exhibition of Imperial Enamel Ware from Mr. Robert Chang’s Collection, Suzhou Museum, 2007-2008, Catalogue, pp. 34-35.