A pair of incense burners in cloisonné enamels representing a couple of geese, the wings making up the cover of the censer, the beak and the reserved legs in gilded bronze, the red crest. China, 19th century.
The goose was in ancient China a symbol of conjugal fidelity - the Chinese having noticed that the geese once in couple do not separate any more - so they were most often represented by two in a different posture like the present pair for symbolize sexual dimorphism, the gander with its head erect and the goose with its head tilted in a position of submission (an indirect lesson addressed to the Chinese woman beginning her life as a wife since the representations of pairs of geese were offered at weddings).
Their plumage is treated here in a non-realistic way since they feature motifs inspired by archaic Chinese bronzes. The representation of birds such as ducks or geese, each time associated with the wish of a happy marriage, first appears through incense burner bronzes under the Han dynasty (from -206 to +220), a period of political stability and establishment of the system of officials, the famous "mandarins", support of the imperial structure, then it is under the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) that they are represented in cloisonné enamels as lavish wedding gifts - the cloisonnés have always been expensive and difficult to make - to the newlyweds of the new rising merchant caste.
Finally under the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), they were very successful in the 18th century in the form of cloisonnés enameled vessels with imperial mark to decorate the apartments of women in the palaces of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), in a perfect equivalence of the artificial or real aviaries of the European artistocracy. Their function of incense burner then seems secondary compared to their decorative function and this is why they cover cloisonné enamels always more sumptuous enhanced with rich gilding.
This pair is part of this tradition and was probably intended to be a wedding present in China. The treatment of enamels on a turquoise background and the archaic patterns of stylized dragons are characteristic of the end of the Qing dynasty and more precisely of the cloisonné made under the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1875-1908). A number (24) has been debossed with a punch under the crow's feet: it is probably a mark affixed by a European trader, and this, perhaps shortly after the manufacture of the object, since among the Chinese articles which arrived in large numbers from the port of Canton to European ports, there were already Chinese cloisonné enamels. A Chinese invention that required laborious work in ovens that were often the same as those used for firing porcelain, cloisonné always remained a product that the Chinese reserved for themselves and that they hardly intended, unlike porcelain, export. This changed, however, from the forced intrusion of Europeans in the 19th century and their increasing takeover of Chinese territory from 1860 (Second Opium War and Summer Palace Bag) because from that moment more in addition to articles initially not intended for export found in the ships of the Company of the Indies bound for Europe: this is how the Westerners discovered the jades, the lacquers and the Chinese cloisonné, of which undoubtedly the present and charming pair of geese censers.