An enslaved girl balances a wooden tub on top of her head in this watercolor portrait made by Mary Anna Randolph Custis in 1830. The barefoot girl wears a full-length apron over a short-sleeved reddish-orange checked dress. Likely one of the Custis family slaves, her name is unknown. Custis or someone else later added the name "Topsy" in pencil, probably as a reference to an enslaved girl in the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The intention of this attribution is not known. While Custis spent much of her early life advocating for the gradual abolition of slavery, the character of Topsy is now understood as a racial caricature. However, Topsy receives an education in the novel, and Custis was known to support literacy for slaves despite its illegality in many antebellum southern states. In the early 1850s she gave the painting as a gift to J. E. B. Stuart, then a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where her husband, Robert E. Lee, was commandant. It is believed that Stuart attached the painting to the back of a drawing of a mounted cavalryman using his sword to cut through a watermelon.
Custis, the only surviving child of George Washington Parke Custis and Mary Lee Fitzhugh, married Lee, her distant cousin, in 1831, the year after this portrait was made.