Picasso’s 1906 “The Death of Harlequin” is an example of the early work in the National Gallery's new show.

There’s a story that National Gallery of Art curator Andrew Robison likes to tell about Pablo Picasso. “He used to say that, ‘At the age of 15, I could draw like Raphael,’” Robison says, referring to the Renaissance-era Italian painter and master draftsman. Picasso’s challenge, he would tell friends, was learning how “not to draw like Raphael.”

A new NGA show chronicles how Picasso mastered that challenge. Picasso’s Drawings, 1890-1921: Reinventing Tradition features 58 works tracing the artist’s journey from burgeoning talent to artistic visionary.

More than half the pieces — early studies rather than the cubist oils most people know and love — are rarely seen works from private collections. But even the casual Picasso fan will recognize variations on some of his better-known themes, such as a series of jugglers and sad (in one case, dead) clowns.

The show moves chronologically through three rooms, highlighting early examples of Picasso’s studies of hands and torsos. (More fun is a collection of bulbous, blue-tinged nudes.) Viewers will also find a series of early cubist drawings, a couple of violin collages and masks inspired by African art.

The show covers the first 30 years of Picasso’s career, which Robison says is both by necessity and design. “If you try to survey his entire life, you end up with a giant exhibition or you end up skipping important things,” he explains. “We wanted to begin at the beginning.”

The show takes that mandate literally. Visitors can see a 9-year-old Picasso’s sketch of Hercules, his earliest known work, signed with a precocious flourish. These earliest works reveal an irony: As a boy, the future cubist was trained by his artist father, who emphasized learning how to realistically render anatomically correct figures.

The show is a peek behind the curtain of Picasso’s legend. For Robison, that was exactly the idea. “We wanted to boil Picasso down to his essence,” he says.

National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; through May 6, free; 202-737-4215. (Archives)