A Hairy Tale
Exhibit Eyes Rapunzel's Roots, With a Modern Twist

audioListen to NPR's Alex Van Oss report on Rapunzel.

View a photo gallery of the Rapunzel exhibition View a photo gallery of the Rapunzel exhibit.

Aug. 22, 2001 — A new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington takes a fresh glimpse at Rapunzel, the classic fairly tale about a beautiful girl and her long golden hair. One thing visitors to Rapunzel, Rapunzel! Let Down Your Hair will find: she's a lot older than she looks.

The witch prepares to cut off Rapunzel's hair
The witch prepares to cut Rapunzel's lovely hair. Maja Dusiková, illustration for Rapunzel, Rapunzel, 1996.
Courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts

View a photo gallery of the Rapunzel exhibit.

The Rapunzel most people know comes from the Brothers Grimm version of the 1850s. But actually the character goes back 300 years, to an Italian story. "In 1637, Gian-Battista Bazille wrote a story called Petrosinella, which means 'Little Parlsey' in Neapolitan dialect," Krystyna Wasserman, the exhibition's curator and the museum's library and research director, tells NPR's Alex Van Oss on Morning Edition.

As the story goes, once upon a time a woman desired "rampion," a salad vegetable that grew in the garden next door. The garden belonged to a witch, who later seized the woman's child and locked the girl in a tower. Rapunzel -- which means rampion in German -- lets her blond hair grow long and luxurious. The only way the witch can come up to see Rapunzel is by calling out to her, "Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!" -- and climbing up the hair ladder.

At the exhibition, 40 artists have all depicted the shearing of Rapunzel's locks as punishment for letting the Prince climb into the tower, the way the Grimms wrote it. But some earlier versions were more risqué. Wasserman notes that in a French version, the haircut comes in a fit of jelousy after the witch realizes Rapunzel is pregnant.

The exhibit, which runs through January, features 54 illustrations and 41 books published over the past 150 years in English, German, French and Dutch. The wide-ranging works include Catherine Satterlee's haunting image of Rapunzel standing in a lake, nude. Rapunzel's mouth is wide open and she seems to be singing -- or screaming.

A more lighthearted take on the tale can be found in Betsy Lewin's cartoon illustrations, which accompany David Vozar's updated story, RAPunzel: A Happenin' Rap. In it, the heroine is a spoiled girl from Brooklyn, who hooks up with her prince, and becomes a hairstylist:

"There was RAPunzel, the girl of my dreams,
Down dropped her hair, so shiny it gleamed.
The climbing was rough -- it took me a bit.
Her shrill whining was giving me fits.
'You're hurting my hair when it twists and bends.
Your heavy weight will give me split ends!'"

Rapunzel puppet

The exhibit includes Rapunzel puppets by Allan Stevens of the Puppet Co. Playhouse.
Photo courtesy National Museum of Women in the Arts.

After all these centuries, Rapunzel remains a complex work, Wasserman says. "But it is now, and forever will be, the story of a little girl with long, golden hair."

Other Resources

The National Museum of Women in the Arts, which organized the Rapunzel exhibit.

Rapunzel text and a comparison of the 1812 and 1857 versions by the Grimm Brothers.

The Annotated Rapunzel, including a history of the story and additional illustrations.

The Grimm Brothers' Home Page, with chronology and a list of their major works.