In the early 1870s, Manet experimented with the equestrian portrait genre. The result was a generally homogenous group of pieces, which includes, in addition to Mr. Arnaud's portrait "Ritratto del pittore Émile Guillaudin a cavallo" (Portrait of the Painter Émile Guillaudin on Horseback) (Dearborn, Michigan, private collection) and the "Ritratto di Marie Lefébure a cavallo" (Portrait of Marie Lefébure on horseback) (São Paulo Museum of Art).
All 3 paintings portray representatives of the Parisian high bourgeoisie, but the "Portrait de M. Arnaud à cheval" appears to deviate from previous canvases, starting with its dimensions and cut: the painting is twice as large, in portrait orientation, and depicts the horse full length.
Michel Arnaud was a Paris-born entrepreneur, an occasional collector of Impressionist paintings, and an avid equestrian, which is probably the reason why Manet depicted him on the back of his steed. We don't know what relationship the artist and his subject shared, but it is likely that they met in 1875, the same year the painting was created. The painting, which was never finished—a vintage photo demonstrates that the landscape was left in draft form and the horse's hooves were only hinted at—was kept in the artist's studio until his death. Purchased by the painter Max Liebermann (1847–1935), it has been suggested that it was he who completed the piece, framing it and adding a forged signature. The painting was purchased by Carlo Grassi in 1936 through the Thannhauser gallery in Berlin, and later became part of the Galleria d'Arte Moderna's collections.