A statement on the gallery's website said it presented, "the female body as either a 'passive decorative form' or a 'femme fatale'. Let's challenge this Victorian fantasy!"
"The gallery exists in a world full of intertwined issues of gender, race, sexuality and class which affect us all. How could artworks speak in more contemporary, relevant ways?" the statement read.
Visitors left post-it notes in the space where the painting hung, with mixed responses to the removal — some called it "politically correct" and claimed censorship.
But the gallery's curator of contemporary art, Clare Gannaway, told The Guardian the aim of the removal was not to censor, but to provoke debate.
"It wasn't about denying the existence of particular artworks," she said.
"For me personally, there is a sense of embarrassment that we haven't dealt with it sooner. Our attention has been elsewhere … we've collectively forgotten to look at this space and think about it properly.
"We want to do something about it now because we have forgotten about it for so long."
Ms Gannaway said the painting would probably return to the gallery — it previously hung in a room titled In Pursuit of Beauty, containing late 19th century paintings showing the female body — "but hopefully contextualised quite differently".
"It is not just about that one painting, it is the whole context of the gallery," she said.
The gallery said the removal itself was an artistic act and "part of a group gallery takeover" that will feature in a solo exhibition by Sonia Boyce.
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