Woman in Doorway, a portrait of the artist's mother, is both unusual for Burchfield and entirely in keeping with the prevailing spirit of his work. Not known as a portraitist, Burchfield usually only implied the presence of people or showed them distantly through windows or doorways. He painted his mother inside her six-room frame house in Salem, where he was raised. While the interior view is unusual, the emotionally charged setting and the sense of space as an extension of the people who lived there were typical of his art. Although many paintings from 1917 were sketched first in pencil, this work was drawn almost entirely with the brush.
Woman in Doorway was created in what Burchfield considered as one of his years of greatest happiness. Recently returned from his aborted attempt to study art in New York, Burchfield was welcomed by his family. The painting was one of his attempts to recapture the moods and experiences of childhood. He later spoke of his joy to be back in Salem: in this context, the painting may be understood as a loving tribute to his mother and home.
Woman in Doorway is related to several works from 1917 that show solitary, elderly women inside their homes or in their gardens. Some are portraits that were inspired by his mother and seem to suspend time as a means to hold on to cherished memories. In Woman in Doorway, Alice Burchfield seems to be the essence of stability and patience. The work is effective in its straightforward treatment of realistic domestic details. Dressed in a plain white dress, his mother is a commanding but protective presence in a house that appears worn and cluttered. To compensate for her relatively small size, Burchfield sketched her with thick, gestural strokes, accentuating her foreshortened lap with thick, white paint. The interior is plausible as a place where a large family was raised. The furnishings look both modest and comfortable. In contrast to the ordinary details of the setting, however, the organic patterning of the wallpaper, particularly above the doorway, adds drama to the scene.
Duncan Phillips admired the painting greatly and saw it as predicting the artist's later interests: "How well Burchfield remembered his Mother sitting in her rocking chair in the open doorway between the living room and the back room which was always kept half dark and cool! That back room was a symbol of something in America he knew only too well. This early view of a phase of the small town was to be prophetic of what he was to do professionally and as a specialist later on. The human interest of this transitional picture proved the turning point of his career--committing him to a serious mission of leading the way to...'the American Scene' in art."